By Joshua Henkin
Knopf Doubleday; 304 pp.; $26.95
During the early days of the pandemic, I noticed many readers craving dramatic stories in exotic settings to take their minds off the crisis. Others, like myself, felt so disconnected from humanity and pre-COVID-19 life that we searched for relatable narratives of people navigating the old problems we tackled before the world was thrown into chaos.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, Morningside Heights, reconnected me to the everyday problems that I’ve missed over the past year. At first, it seems as though the book will focus on a heady romance between a young, besotted literature student and her older, hotshot Shakespeare professor. The central question, however, is not how young love is born, but how it ages. The novel glosses over the drama and angst involved in building a relationship and puts the minutiae of uneventful days in an aging couple’s lives at center stage.
Through the lens of Spence Robin and Pru Steiner’s relationship, the novel traces the many complicated ways in which one person’s personal progress often interferes with another person’s ability to grow. Readers get an intimate look at Pru, who finds herself taking care of an ailing intellectual husband and trying to pinpoint how and when she lost her own identity. She has dedicated her life to Spence’s career and Shakespeare scholarship, while his success has subtly and gradually eaten away at her selfhood.
Soon after Pru marries Spence, we glimpse the beginning of the erosion of her identity when her classmates slip, calling her “Mrs. Spence Robin.” She then joins a community theater in an attempt to find purpose, but her marriage to an older man who has already made a name for himself makes Pru’s amateur theater achievements seem childish. Having a child brings further feelings of failure. While Spence receives a MacArthur Foundation grant, Pru painstakingly tries to master caring for a colicky baby. The contrast between her husband’s academic achievements and Pru’s parenting struggles exacerbates her sense of ineptness.
When he is 57—and thirty years into his marriage to Pru, now 51—Spence becomes less alert, and his mind no longer functions well enough to complete his book, forcing Pru to face the challenge of disentangling their futures and finding her own version of fulfillment. Watching how Spence’s illness shakes Pru makes readers think about what you gain and what you lose when you devote your life to someone else. Spence’s estranged son, Arlo, has also spent his life picking goals based on what he thinks will impress his father. Though he gloats about his amassed riches, the shallowness of his life and how little his money matters to him without his father’s approbation calls into question his apparent success.
As we all slowly emerge into a post-pandemic reality, readers may relate to how difficult it can be for Pru to start anew. Looking for guidance, she seeks solace in a synagogue, which she attends to say Kaddish for her father. One day she brings her mother along, and upon introducing herself to the rabbi, a conversation about her name unearths deeper layers of her struggles:
“As in pru u’rvu,” the rabbi said. “Be fruitful and multiply.”
She finishes the verse for him: “Oo’meeloo et ha’aretz v’chivshuha [and replenish the earth, and subdue it].”
“So you have a Jewish education.”
“Nine years of Torah Academy, “ Pru’s mother replied.
“Your parents taught you well,” the rabbi told Pru.
“The things you remember from when you were a child.”
“Be fruitful and multiply” typically refers to procreation, yet Henkin highlights how in Pru’s situation it is also a reference to her Jewish education and other interests languishing. Pru has completed extensive schooling and has a lively mind, but she never uses all the knowledge she accumulates to create something of her own. She has not used her education or her gifts productively, and she is haunted by the fear that she has wasted her life.
All the characters in the novel seem to struggle with the question of what it means to live meaningfully, taking advantage of your strengths and opportunities. Arlo’s wealth feels hollow, Pru has not pursued her own passions and Sarah (Spence and Pru’s daughter) may be succeeding in her desire to become a doctor, but she often questions her choice of going to medical school, wondering if studying day in and day out while accumulating loans is truly fulfilling.
The only characters who seem to hold the key to happiness are Spence’s caretaker, Ginny, and her young son, Rafe. They are central to the novel because they model how a struggling family can have an easier time finding passion and purpose than many of the more privileged characters in the novel. Unfortunately, Ginny’s inner life is left unexamined and we are only given a small window into how Rafe might feel about being a young Black boy from Brooklyn who is taken in by a white Manhattan family. When Pru first meets Ginny, hoping to hire her, they talk about their children’s similar goals. Pru tries to connect with Ginny, but Ginny responds, “The difference is, your daughter’s already in medical school and my son’s in the eighth grade. He hasn’t gotten a single A in high school yet.” Pru and Ginny’s lives share similarities—they are both incapable of fully fixing their loved ones’ problems, and each woman has difficulty finding time to pursue their individual goals—but the novel often chafes at their differences without examining them further. Rafe has not had the same opportunities as Sarah, and though Ginny is confident and strong, there is an imbalance in her relationship with Pru that cannot be erased, no matter how hard Pru tries.
Morningside Heights is at its strongest when it follows the subtle inequities woven into the fabric of daily life. By uncovering what happens when honors fade and a scholar can no longer publish, Henkin makes the reader think about which of our struggles end up defining us and how wealth, intelligence and status cannot necessarily insulate one from sadness and disappointment.