Saturday, July 3, 2021

Morningside Heights

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
6/15/21; 304 pages

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin is a very highly recommended profound, tragic, and compassionate family drama.

In 1976 graduate student Pru Steiner falls in love with Spence Robin, her young Shakespeare professor at Columbia University, and they marry. Spence is a rising star, a lauded professor who receives acclaim and awards for his scholarship. Pru sets her career goals aside, has a child, Sarah, works an uninspiring job fund raising for Columbia, and loves Spence and Sarah. She learns to love Arlo, Spence's son from an earlier marriage. Pru has an Orthodox Jewish background but turns to a more secular observance, like Spence.

They have a good life - and then something changes. It slowly becomes clear that something is wrong with Spence. This man of words misreads an invitation, he is cold all the time, can't concentrate, and is unable to finish new, annotated Shakespeare. At 57 Spence is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and it is up to Pru, 51, to figure out his care on her own. Sarah, who is at medical school on the west coast, flies out briefly, and Arlo keeps his distance.

The writing is excellent. This is a brilliant, complicated novel that captures an extended, heart-breaking time in a family. It is a portrait of a marriage facing hardship, when a spouse suddenly is turned into a caregiver. It depicts a normal family, where their love and devotion to each other is evident alongside their flaws and struggles.

These are not perfect people, but they are realistic. Certainly Spence and Pru are portrayed as real, complicated, and flawed individuals, but Sarah and Arlo also have chapters where their stories are told through their distinctive, imperfect, and individual points-of-view. All the viewpoints, turmoil, questions, and complications that can be an integral part of an ordinary family are depicted with a nuanced sensitivity and realism as the family, but especially Pru, handle his care while Spence essentially slowly dies.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Pantheon.

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