Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Joshua Henkin has sought to tackle the types of questions which have no concrete answers across his numerous works, and he continues his streak with his most recent novel, Morningside Heights. It follows the story of Ohio-born Pru Steiner, who arrives in New York in 1976 and gets married shortly after. Thirty years later, her life controlled by her husband’s illness, Pru has a chance encounter which leads her on an unexpected and unpredictable path.
Table of contents
Joshua Henkin Interrupts some Life Plans
From the moment we’re born plans start being formed for us both by the laws of nature as well as our families. While the former seem to remain constant from start to finish, the plans elaborated for us by our own kin are often subject to change, reality refusing to conform itself to the whims of living beings. In Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin, we meet Pru Steiner, whose life plans have been nothing but changing perpendicularly to her desires and ambitions.
The novel begins by introducing us to the main character as she arrives from Ohio to New York in 1976, her heart full of hopes and head full of dreams. She’s determined to take the city by storm like so many other youngsters before her, but soon her life takes its first unexpected detour, in the form of her young, hotshot Shakespeare professor, Spence Robin.
They get married, and for thirty years they live a relatively calm and peaceful life, even becoming parents in the process. However, time begins to take its toll on Spence who seems to be falling asleep more and more often while also having trouble concentrating on daily tasks. With their daughter, Sarah, currently away at medical school, Pru takes it upon herself to care for her ailing husband.
Every day turns into a struggle, one which leaves her feeling lonely and isolated from the world. Spence’s worsening condition is taking a serious toll on her, and just when she was looking for the strength to go on, a chance encounter with a man gives her the very real possibility to revive the romance in her life.
While Pru is struggling with the obvious dilemma eating away at her, Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage, Arlo, makes a sudden return into their lives, bringing his own set of complications into the situation. As chance would have it, he is a wealthy investor in the kind of biotech which might just give his father a fighting chance to recover.
The Rearranged Family in Morningside Heights
Outwardly, if grouped by geographical regions, families tend to have the some sorts of dynamics from unit to the next, allowing us to have an average picture to refer to. However, if we take a closer look inward, we start seeing an accumulation of small differences from one family to the next, to the point where it becomes apparent most of them have a largely unique arrangement stemming from the specific needs of its members.
We seldom stop to think about how complex our own family arrangements are, largely because we’ve grown up with and have become accustomed to them. There is, however, one type of circumstance where complex family dynamics start to become apparent to all those involved: when they need to be rearranged due to a significant change.
In Morningside Heights, we are essentially treated to a family drama going through this complex and turbulent process as they are facing Spence’s early onset Alzheimer, and Joshua Henkin takes his time to carefully examine the effects of the disease on all those connected with the man, namely Pru. There are quite a few heavy passages which, I believe, capture quite well the terrifying nature of the disease, and I feel like they’re going to stay with me for a little while yet.
We get to see them over a period of forty years, observing how Pru’s life arrangements slowly shift with her husband’s needs as their focal point. Henkin is quite adept at capturing the changes in Pru’s psychological state, and is effective at relaying to us the tremendous difficulties she encounters along the way.
With this being said, this family saga moves along at a surprisingly fast pace, to the extent where I had the impression I was reading a thriller at certain points. While it does mean we get a bit less information and elaboration on the side characters and events which transpire outside of the family’s direct sphere of influence, I think the trade-off is more than worth it.
The Struggles that Bind Us
Despite its pace and the wealth of subjects it deals with, at its core Morningside Heights does remain a family drama in my eyes, and consequently, a character study above anything else. Though both Spence and Pru can be seen as our main characters, the latter always felt like she held a greater share of the torch, so-to-speak.
Her inner world opens up to us on more than one occasion, and I think one would be hard-pressed to find people who have a single-note opinion of her. Just like the rest of us, she tries her best while making plenty of mistakes along the way, sometimes failing, at other times succeeding, but ultimately subjected to factors outside her control.
The struggle she is constantly facing between her loyalty to her husband and a renewed chance at a meaningful romance is looked at from many perspectives and never treated in a black-and-white manner. No matter what choice we, the readers, like to think we would have made in her stead, I feel like her actions are justified and merit respect.
As I’ve discussed it a bit earlier, Spence’s struggles are highlighted in very tactful and insightful paragraphs, and the grief they cause to Pru and Arlo as they watch the inevitable loss inching closer is poignantly captured by the author’s concise and elegant prose. Indeed, there is a good deal of real darkness to be found in this book, the one translatable to real life, and I feel any reader ought to be aware of this before diving in.
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At the same time, we are also shown how the struggle faced by the family binds its members closer, affording them new opportunities to rekindle relationships which might have been lost. We see how they can come out stronger, with a deeper understanding of themselves as well as the world they live in. There is some light to be found here as well, and it’s worth remembering too.
The Final Verdict
Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin is a profoundly engaging family drama structured more like a thriller than anything else. It touches on numerous elements of the human condition, most of them relating to family dynamics, struggle in the face of destiny, and overcoming the seemingly-insurmountable pain of grief. If you’re interested in well-executed character studies focusing on topics pertinent to the lives of virtually (if not literally) all human beings, then I highly recommend you check this book out.
Joshua Henkin is an American author whose most recent novel, Morningside Heights, was the #1 Indie Next Pick selection by the American Booksellers Association, as well as an Editor’s Choice Book in The New York Times. His other novels include Swimming Across the Hudson, Matrimony, and The World Without You, the film version of which was released in 2019.