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Morningside Heights


Morningside Heights

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, is a heartbreak. Actually it is a series of heartbreaks in the life of a family. Professor Spence Robin, an academic wunderkind turned Columbia Shakespeare scholar extraordinaire, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. His wife, Pru, and adult children, Arlo and Sarah, helplessly watch his steady decline and debilitation. Told primarily from Pru’s perspective, albeit in third person, the book depicts her responses to “the professor’s” prognosis and failing health with an unsentimental style that never lacks compassion.

"MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS is a lovely and bittersweet ode to the challenges of partnership and parenting, as well as a fond tribute to New York City."

Pru Steiner meets Spence Robin in 1976 as a student in one of his Shakespeare classes. She had shed her Orthodox Judaism at Yale. Now in New York, as she considers a career in theater, she finds herself attracted to Spence’s cultural Judaism --- academic, Yiddishist, acculturated. Their affair is kept secret until the semester ends, then quickly becomes more intense and serious. During their engagement, Pru meets Spence’s sister, Enid --- who is brain-damaged and institutionalized --- and learns of his previous brief marriage to the eccentric and free-spirited Linda Zakheim. More shockingly, Pru finds out that Spence has a two-year-old son, Arlo, with Linda. Spence rarely sees Arlo, sending monthly checks to his nomadic and flighty ex.

After they tie the knot, Pru and Spence have a child of their own, Sarah, and their family is complete. Much of Pru’s life with Spence is about his career --- his books, awards and tenure at Columbia. Still, she brings her own values to the family, including her Jewish beliefs and practices. The couple raises Sarah, who eventually begins medical school, and spends as much time with each other as they can, including a two-year period with Arlo as well. But then Pru begins to notice something wrong with Spence. His memory is faltering, and he is growing increasingly confused. The diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's is a major blow but not a shock to his loved ones.

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS is about what comes after this realization, though readers do get to know Pru, Spence, Arlo and, to some degree, Sarah before Spence’s illness. Henkin’s prose steadily marches on, excising much emotion from the complex story he is telling. While the action centers on Spence, Pru is really the star here, both in Henkin’s narrative focus and in her devotion to Spence and his intellectual legacy. But she remains mostly Spence’s wife, and less of her own woman, for much of the story.

Henkin holds readers at a distance, which is mirrored by Arlo, who is always on the periphery of the family and on the edges of the novel, even though he is such a compelling character and a person in need. His writing is brisk and easy to read --- sometimes abrupt and lacking warmth but still entertaining and even insightful. The book is at its best when it shifts away from Spence and spends time with those who orbit him --- Arlo; Pru; his caregiver, Ginny; and her teenage son, Rafe.

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS is a lovely and bittersweet ode to the challenges of partnership and parenting, as well as a fond tribute to New York City. It is an especially worthwhile exploration of memory and identity, and the spaces where the two intersect.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 18, 2021

Morningside Heights
by Joshua Henkin

  • Publication Date: May 24, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0525566635
  • ISBN-13: 9780525566632