Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Published on October 15, 2021

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Reviewed by Marybeth Ginsberg

“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.” (Bookbrowse.com)

This is the story of a family in transition: their relationships and their hardships. While the events in the novel span the lifetime of Spence and Pru Robin, from the time they first fall in love to Spence’s decline and subsequent surrender to Alzheimer’s disease, it is the day-to-day struggles that make the characters relatable.

As the story unfolds, we come to know Spence, Pru, their daughter Sarah, and Spence’s estranged son, Arlo. Spence is intelligent, quirky, fun, and dedicated to his family and his academic career. He adores Sarah and works hard to get to know Arlo. Spence is nurturing and kind, and the fact that Spence is the youngest tenured member of the English department at Columbia University makes his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease seem even more profound. As the disease takes hold, Spence and his family grapple with the changes that quickly impact his professional and personal life.

Mostly set in Manhattan, this novel offers a glimpse into the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Henkin carefully uses description to create the setting and dialog to develop the characters. While it is a very sad story, the characters are very likable and real.  The reader feels drawn in and senses the tension and desperation at pivotal moments in the novel. As the characters respond, and sometimes react, to Spence’s decline, we can imagine ourselves in a similar situation. This is what makes Morningside Heights a great book.   

Henkin uses language to create a mood of detachment and uncertainty in the following excerpt:

Walter stared down at this plate, where a few bites of cheeseburger remained uneaten next to a hummock of coleslaw. A man in a black beret was mopping the vestibule. A woman at the next table kept using the word chignon. It was dark outside, and through the window Pru could see a bus blundering across town. “Listen, she said, “it was nice to meet you.” “It was nice to meet you, too,” Walter said. Out on the street, Pru walked one way and Walter walked the other. She turned around to look at him as he disappeared down the block. (Henkin, 192) 

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