The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

Morningside Heights
A Novel
by Joshua Henkin
15 Jun 2021
304 pages
Publisher: Pantheon Books
ISBN-13: 9781524748357
Genre: Novels
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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.

Here are some of the recent comments posted about Morningside Heights.
You can read the full discussion here, and please do participate if you wish.
Be aware that this discussion will contain spoilers!

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? (7 responses)

Those religious traditions became part of Pru's DNA which she ignored or downplayed for a time but came to lean on when she needed them. I think this is similar to many rituals on which we are raised, religious or otherwise. We may step away from them for a time but their underpinning is always... - paulak

Are you someone who avoids discussions about death, or are you more likely to engage in them? (10 responses)

Prior to anyone close to me dying, I did not feel comfortable talking about death. It was so foreign to me, I didn't even know how I would be affected. I was fortunate that death didn't present itself to me until I was an adult, when my father died. It knocked the wind right out of me ... - melissa c.

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? (2 responses)

Absolutely Spence's illness impacted decisions for Sarah and Arlo. I don't know how any family member would escape being affected, even when like Arlo, they are more removed from the circumstances. And yes, I think both have regrets as well as resentments perhaps in Arlo's case, and ... - paulak

Do you consider Pru to be Spence's primary caretaker? What do you feel helps Pru come to terms with her husband's decline? Do you think she gleans any insight about her husband or his early life as his decline accelerates? (3 responses)

Although she had a lot of physical help, she was his main mental and emotional support. After Spence developed Alzheimer’s he did reveal some things about his early life. He had not really talked about those things before - peggyt

Do you think Arlo was thriving under his mother's care? How do you believe his time in New York changed his perception of her and their life together? Did they ever come to a place of peace and understanding? (8 responses)

Definitely not! Arlo’s mother was terrible. She was so self centered, she barely thought about him. She was deluded, a liar and a thief. I honestly cannot think of anything good to say about her. Well, I guess she didn’t let him starve. Living with his dad let him know what... - peggyt

Ginny's son Rafe is a hemophiliac. Why do you think he seems intent on pushing his boundaries? Do you think Ginny's choices regarding Rafe are appropriate? What would you have done? (5 responses)

All kids push their boundaries and I don't think Rafe gave any thought to the fact that he could possibly die as a result of his actions. Ginny may have been considered to be overprotective but given the circumstances, what parent wouldn't be? - ritai

Have you ever known someone with Alzheimer's? If so, how did that experience compare to Pru and Spence's? (4 responses)

Agree with Peggyt that the experience varies greatly. I have had some exposure to dementia induced by meningitis and that was absolutely frightening. Fortunately, the afflicted person has regained much of their mental capacity but just that brief glimpse is enough to appreciate the very difficult ... - paulak

How do you think each character's success – or lack thereof – impacted their identity? Is there a character you consider more successful than the others? (3 responses)

It depends on how you define success - Arlo is certainly successful career-wise and financially, but he wonders if his father would think he was successful? And Spence was successful in his academic niche of Shakespeare research, but he was unsuccessful at furthering his relationship with his ... - juliep

In what ways do you think Pru's connection with Walter is different to the one she shares with Spence? Do you think it's ethical for them to pursue a relationship? What would you have done? (7 responses)

Pru was at a point in her life when she was lonely and missing the husband she once had. I can understand her wanting to see someone and I didn't mind her having a casual relationship with Walter but I cringed when she had an intimate relationship with him. I just felt so sad for Spence! ... - ritai

Overall, what do you think of Morningside Heights? (no spoilers in this thread, please) (13 responses)

I was really somewhat reluctant to read a book with a large part of the focus on Alzheimer’s but this was so well done that I’m really glad that I read it - peggyt

Pru has an interaction with Arlo in which she discloses information about his parents. Also, she approaches Anne, Walter’s ex-wife, on the street and tells her that she knows her ex-husband. Were these appropriate actions? (3 responses)

I think it was okay for Pru to correct Arlo about the misinformation that his mother had given him because it affected his relationship with Pru and Spence. I thought it was a bit odd to go up to Walter’s ex on the street but not really wrong - peggyt

Pru tells Sarah that sometimes she wished she'd had more siblings. Sarah thinks that sometimes she wished she'd had fewer. Why do you think each felt this way? Where do you fall in this spectrum? (8 responses)

I agree that it really depends on the family dynamics. I am the youngest of 4 girls and there is quite an age gap between me and my three older sisters. In retrospect, I missed having siblings closer in age to myself. But as we all got older that age difference has all but disappeared. I do have... - melissa c.

Pru was raised in a Jewish Orthodox household. In what ways do you feel this impacted her life? What role does religion play in your own life, and has this changed as you've aged? (5 responses)

I was raised in a Christian household; both my parents went to a Christian college and practiced their religion faithfully; my father still does. We went to church every Sunday and fully participated in church activities. But when I found out years later about infidelities, etc, that ... - rebajane

Spence tries to connect with Arlo. Do you feel his overtures are successful? Is there anything you think he should have done otherwise? (7 responses)

I think that Spence did his best to connect with Arlo but he had a hard time seeing things from Arlo's perspective. His interests in life were all about books, learning and education which were the complete opposite of Linda's interests. Since Arlo spent most of his formative years with ... - ritai

What did you think about Ginny's role in the household? Why do you believe she was willing to stick with the couple for so many years? (8 responses)

Ginny became like a member of the family to a degree. At least much more than any of the other caregivers. So that is why I think she stuck with them. Plus from a practical standpoint it was a steady job with a good employer. Besides, I think she cared about Spence - peggyt

What did you think of the novel's ending? Was it the ending you were expecting? (4 responses)

It was not what I expected but I liked it. It was beautiful - peggyt

What do you think the ponytail incident suggests about Arlo and Sarah's understanding of each other, and how, in your opinion, does it affect their relationship as they become adults? (3 responses)

Sarah and Arlo had a competitive relationship and cutting off Sarah's hair was an extreme way for Arlo to get to her. I think Sarah realized that if she told on Arlo he would be the "winner" in this situation. Instead, she takes credit for the "new look" herself, thus ... - ritai

What future do you imagine for Pru, Ginny, Arlo, Sarah and Rafe? (2 responses)

I think their bonds were forged and they will continue to stay connected but those relationships will ebb and flow as current-life demands permit. It would actually be good subject matter for a next book (hint, hint)! - paulak

When Spence's son Arlo moves in with Spence, Pru and Sarah, the family dynamic is altered. Did you see this as a positive change or a negative one, and why? (11 responses)

I think it was definitely a plus for Arlo because he at least received an education, embarrassing though it was to be so far behind his younger sister at first. And he released that he was dyslexic, which had to be a relief for all of them, and many of the learning mechanisms he was taught he ended ... - juliep

Why do you imagine Arlo's first visit to Spence's sister Enid made such an impression on him? Why do you think he decides to return once more, years later? (6 responses)

At that point, Arlo was still looking for more family. Later I think he was still wanting to connect - peggyt

Why do you suppose Arlo is so intent on arranging a family reunion? Do you think the event met Arlo's expectations? (7 responses)

Arlo wanted the family he never had so this helped at least somewhat but it did not really seem to meet his expectations - peggyt

Why do you suppose Arlo lies to Sarah about attending Reed College? Why do you feel he rejects academia entirely? Do you think he meets his father's expectations? (7 responses)

Arlo must have felt insecure about his lack of formal education; although he did go to Reed, he just didn’t graduate. I think he rejected academia because it meant everything to his dad and Arlo never felt he measured up although it did not seem that Spence felt that way - peggyt

#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

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by 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!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary S. (Hilton Head Island, SC)
Realistic and Compelling
Seldom does a story about a family attain the realism that the author did in this book. Perhaps I am at an age when the storyline depicts situations similar to my own, but I identified with each of the characters completely. The author's use of parallel timelines captured my attention and made me want to read on and learn "what happens next". The life situations were believable and enduring-- I highly recommend this book as a quick, enjoyable read!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cynthia V. (New York, NY)
Surprisingly Uplifting
A novel about a literature professor's battle with early onset Alzheimer's does not sound like something I'd ordinarily be drawn to. But this book is so much more. The setting is contemporary Upper West Side New York in the environs of Columbia University. The family members experience complex and sometimes contradictory emotions, which are honest and unsentimental. I found the author's writing of the family dynamics lovingly natural and unselfconscious. The time frame goes back and forth, but easily understood and serves character development well. Reading this compassionate, well-written and ultimately life affirming novel was a pleasure.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Judith Guffey
Everyman’s story
The revolving doors of these families kept me engaged and eager to read the next part. A story of love, mistrust, abandonment, forgiveness, and care for one another. Poignant and bittersweet. I devoured this book in a few hours.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Beth B. (New Wilmington, PA)
Remniscences in Morningside Heights
Do not miss reading this novel! Its colorful cast of characters impart wisdom that is insightful and unforgettable. Issues span a wide range of topics from family interaction to education to illness and its effects on this family to caregivers and forever friends. The author, Joshua Henkin, addresses how we appear and disappear, fading in and out of vitality and purpose. It would be difficult to name a favorite character; all are rich in their own right. How rare to discover such texture and perspective in a novel! I look forward to reading it again immediately, this time making journal entries of favorite sections.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Gail K. (Saratoga Springs, NY)
Morningside Heights, a Love Story
Although it sounds like a cliché, Morningside Heights is a love story. It is the love story of a husband and a wife, parents and children, even caregivers and the person needing care. These relationships are at times difficult, tender, poignant and sometimes humorous. In spite of the fact that there is tragedy at the core of this novel, Henkin's handling of it is authentic without being maudlin. I finished this book with a sigh, knowing these characters will remain with me well beyond the last page. Now I look forward to reading Henkin's earlier work.

more reviews...

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.

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