Morningside Heights: Book summary and reviews of Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Morningside Heights

A Novel

by Joshua Henkin

Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin X
Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin
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  • Published in USA  Jun 2021
    304 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

A tender, powerful, and big-hearted novel about love in the face of loss, from the award-winning author of The World Without You and Matrimony.

When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976 after graduating from Yale, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare professor, her life takes a turn she couldn't have anticipated.

Thirty years later, something is wrong with Spence. The Great Man can't concentrate; he falls asleep reading The New York Review of Books. With their daughter Sarah away at medical school, Pru must struggle on her own. One day, feeling particularly isolated, Pru meets a man, and the possibility of new romance blooms. Meanwhile, Spence's estranged son from his first marriage has come back into their lives. Arlo, a wealthy entrepreneur who invests in biotech, may be his father's last, best hope.

Morningside Heights is a sweeping and compassionate novel about a marriage surviving hardship. It's about the love between women and men and children and parents, about the things we give up in the face of adversity, about what endures when life turns out differently from what we thought we signed up for.

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!


  1. Explore the role that Judaism plays in Pru's life. Why does her observance ebb and flow? At which moments in her life does she reevaluate her commitment to Judaism? Is her Jewishness a central pillar of her identity? Why or why not?
  2. Discuss Ginny's role in the Robin-Steiner household. Why does Pru decide to hire Ginny? How does Ginny relate to Spence? What sacrifices does Ginny make in her yearslong service to her employers? How do Pru and Ginny each understand the financial aspect of their relationship?
  3. How does Arlo's decision to move in with Spence, Pru, and Sarah alter the family dynamic? Is he embraced equally by all? When and why do tensions arise?
  4. Explore Spence and Arlo's early relationship. How does Spence try to ...

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Morningside Heights:

Although Pru is no longer observant, she still practices some of her religion's rites and rituals. Why do you suppose this is? Are there rites or rituals you engage in, religious or otherwise?
The rituals she keeps probably give her a connection to something good in her past or bring her joy. We all probably continue some rituals from our past that connect us to good memories. - job

Are you someone who avoids discussions about death, or are you more likely to engage in them?
I don’t mind talking about death. As I have gotten older, I find I’m at peace with dying when it comes. I’m doing all I can to live well. My parents are approaching 90 and we haven’t talked about their wishes. Neither they... - job

Crenshaw the book store cat
I did wonder if there was a connection to the Crenshaw book, which I haven't read but am aware of. I think Arlo didn't reveal he was allergic to cats because of his need to belong somewhere. And I think he doesn't want to disappoint ... - scottishrose

Did anyone connect the novel Flowers for Algernon with Arlo and his experimental drug?
That is an interesting question. Until I read the question, I did not make any connections between Arlo and Flowers for Algernon. Perhaps one reason for that is having read Flowers for Algernon so long ago! - djcminor

Do you believe their father's illness affects Sarah and Arlo's life choices? Do you think either harbors regrets? Are there any relationships that have set your life on a specific path?
Sarah and Arlo made their life choices before Spence's illness was even known, so I don't think that it affected the choices that they made. They each regretted, however, that they could not help to the extent they wished that they could, ... - lorrained

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Reviews

Media Reviews

#1 Indie Next Pick for June
The New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Book
One of 2021's Most Highly Anticipated New Books—Newsweek

"Joshua Henkin's novel is a richly textured family portrait that feels deeply familiar yet profoundly moving and illuminating. As in the best fiction, you come away from Morningside Heights reluctantly—attached to its characters and with new understanding of what it is to be a feeling person dealing with life's unpredictability ... His book succeeds not by dint of dazzling language or narrative sleight of hand, but by his unwavering empathy, which leads him to create remarkably real, complex characters."—Heller McAlpin, The Wall Street Journal

"An intimate portrait of a marriage...A literary examination of love in later life, Morningside Heights highlights the complexities of monogamy, family, and love."—Zibby Owens, Good Morning America

"In the sheer pleasure of reading Joshua Henkin's new novel—of following its swift narrative movements, getting to know its all-too-human characters, inhabiting its detail-perfect settings, its relentlessly accurate portrayals—of marriage and parenthood and siblinghood—we can almost forget, for moments on end, that its subject is one of the most painful imaginable: the loss of a self, of a marriage, of a shared life. But the real magic of Morningside Heights is the way it lifts us up, reminding us that ordinary people undertake extraordinary acts of survival every day."—Julie Orringer

"Reading Morningside Heights is an emotional experience. How much can befall a marriage, and what extraordinary demands must sometimes be met for loved ones to endure. But it is a delightful read as well, because the people here are such thoroughly engaging company. So much that happens in this book is unexpected that it reads at the pace of a suspense novel, but its greatest achievement is to make us feel that we are in the presence of real people, living out their joys and sorrows and making their way in the real world."—Sigrid Nunez

"What does it really mean: in sickness and in health, till death do us part? Morningside Heights knows the answer. In this tender, wise, and unflinching novel, Joshua Henkin traces the bittersweet arc of a lifelong love, with all its joy and pain."—Tom Perrotta

"You know a novel is good when the thought of leaving the world it creates and the people who live there fills you with sadness and a profound sense of loss. Joshua Henkin's Morningside Heights is just such a novel."—Richard Russo

"Henkin brilliantly conveys the complexities of a New York City family in this humane, compulsively readable tale...This is a stunning achievement."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Henkin treats the complications of a complicated disease with insight, honesty, and humanity, in a style that is as readable as it is consummately literate."—Library Journal

This information about Morningside Heights shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

Write your own review

CarolT

Real
Morningside Heights is very true to life as it happens - in a way that just pulled me in and held me.

Sheila A

Memorable, Real and Relatable Characters
Joshua Henkin has written a book that feels so true with characters who are so real with all their majesty and flaws. The story revolves around the great Shakespeare scholar and popular professor, Spence Robin. The three other main characters are his wife, Pru, who has given up her career opportunities to support him, their daughter Sarah, and his son from an earlier marriage, Arlo, as well as his caretaker Ginny.
Each of the characters are somewhat isolated from others for various reasons. Sarah has departed New York City for medical school on the west coast. Arlo, who only lived with the family for a brief time, has left to find his own way. He returns for one visit with Sarah at college and then as a benefactor after Spence is ill. Pru is alone except for her college friend, Camille. Then the wonderful caretaker, Ginny comes into their life. Henkin uses this opportunity to point out the subtle differences in class and opportunity and the slight racism that exists.
The depiction of Alzheimer's is very true to life. My mother and a close friend experienced early onset, so I know how the disease affects the main caretaker and the family. I understand the denial, and the constant effort it takes to try to stem the tide of the inevitability of the disease's progress.
Henkin writes so movingly about the marital and familial love in this family. And while it seems like another depressing book, it turns out to be hopeful and uplifting. I enjoyed reading it and highly recommend it

Gretchen M. (Martinsburg, WV)

Couldn't Put It Down
I haven't enjoyed a book like this one in awhile. Characters who are real and funny and honest, a plot that flows and a difficult subject matter depicted with respect and sensitivity. It's so much more than the book jacket describes. Read it!

What are words?

Intertwined lives
Forgo vs. forego; sleight vs. slight; principle vs. principal; flout vs. flaunt; grizzly vs. grisly; mantel vs. mantle; anaticlimactic not anticlimactic - why do these word pairs matter? Do they matter at all? Professor Spence Robin's son Arlo knows that they do not matter, yet to his father, they are a concrete measurement of Arlo's education and ability.

Morningside Heights is divided into 8 sections each one with its own emphasis on a character from the book and his or her relationships. The book revolves around the life of Professor Spencer Robin who is a professor of Shakespeare at Columbia University. He is an academic star and one of the youngest professors at the university.

The story begins when Pru Steiner enrolls in the Professor's class. Their relationship is pivotal in the book. The Intellectual Professor gradually crumbles under the diseases of Alzheimer's and dementia sometime after Pru and the Professor are married.

The novel expertly weaves in and out of the four characters' lives. It examines the joys and devastating consequences that life in a loving but dysfunctional family bring.

Often a soft touch of humor enters into the novel. In chapter 33 a scene of lovemaking turns from romantic to awkward mirroring the life of the relationship itself.

This novel would be an excellent choice for a book club as it challenges our perceptions of love, Alzheimer's disease, and awkward familial relationships in blended family and other family issues.

This novel is insightful and timely- a tribute to the frailty of familial love.

Patty S. (Towson, MD)

Believe In These Characters!
I was so moved by MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS that I had to let it sit for a couple of days before I could write about it. It is the story of a family that will experience hard things. It took me almost no time at all to become invested in Joshua Henkin's characters. They are alive and their experiences ring true, from the sweetness to the excruciating pain. Through it all, it is love and compassion that keeps them putting one foot in front of the other. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.

Susan P. (Boston, MA)

Morningside Heights
This is a sweet and sad story. Pru, a young Jewish woman from the Midwest, starts graduate school at Columbia and falls for her professor. She finds all the lovely things about him are counterbalanced by problems (his previous marriage, his overshadowing fame) and, later, his declining health. Not a long book, but a very deliberate and well-thought-out story of perhaps an ordinary person who really is inspirational (without trying to be anything remotely like that). Hard to put down!

...37 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Joshua Henkin Author Biography

Photo: Matthew Polis

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book and The World Without You, winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a Finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." His fourth novel is Morningside Heights (June 2021). He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

Author Interview
Link to Joshua Henkin's Website

Other books by Joshua Henkin at BookBrowse
  • The World Without You jacket
  • Matrimony jacket
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