A propulsive, literary page-turner about a family beset by early onset Alzheimer’s? If that sounds like an oxymoron then you have not encountered the heart, scalpel, and unassuming genius of Joshua Henkin whose new novel, Morningside Heights is not only a study in craft, but a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
On the surface, the plot sounds grim. Pru Steiner is barely 50 when her husband, renown Shakespeare scholar Spence Robin, begins to exhibit symptoms. He confuses a party’s call for costume attire as cocktail attire, an innocent mistake, if only it were an isolated one. The realization accompanies a palpable discomfort. “He was tugging at his bowtie, like a horse struggling with his bit.” As Spence ransacks his jacket for the invitation, “his pockets hung at his sides, like donkey ears.”
At 57, Spence is too young, too anointed to accept this sentence. Resistance sets in. The Columbia professor has two Guggenheims and a MacArthur, for heck’s sake! A devoted wife. Two children: Sarah is in medical school; his estranged son Arlo, from a fleeting previous marriage, is turning out to be the next Steve Jobs. For a while people cover for him: colleagues, teaching assistants, even his wife.
Because for someone like Spence “to be robbed of his mind” presents an irony almost too great to bear. Suicidal ideation clouds moments of lucidity. He needs constant attention. “Pru hated that emergency alert, the sight of Spence with a chain around his neck, like a criminal, or a cow.”
Pru, who’d abandoned her own academic aspirations in deference to her husband, now finds her selfhood further squeezed into a trying new role. As nurse. As breadwinner. As sole decision maker. I admit, I kept waiting for the rage to roil, for resentment to rear its righteous head, and for Pru to rise up and write that goddamn Shakespeare book under Spence’s contract that he can no longer complete, but alas, Meg Wolitzer already wrote that novel.
Instead Henkin poses another key question: How much are we willing to give for another? At what price? Soon it becomes clear Pru cannot bear this burden alone. Enter Ginny, caretaker extraordinaire, and a broader understanding of what constitutes a family.
Rife with evocative sensory details like the inimitable Chock Full O’ Nuts, Morningside Heights reads like an ode to New York as it maps a narrative of loss, and asks us to consider what it means to live and love, where our faith lies, and what we leave behind.
Henkin, who directs the MFA program at Brooklyn College, is a quiet master whose prose does not call attention to itself, but rather, works in such direct humble service to story that you forget that you are reading. His gift of compression is enviable, as are his instincts for pacing. He knows precisely where to pick us up and where to drop us down, moving the reader through the lives of multiple characters, through multiple points of view, over multiple decades, in a slim volume that’s under 300 pages, all while making it look deceptively easy.
His characters are complicated, flawed, fiercely alive. They don’t always inhabit the most flattering light. Spence, for his socialist background, is an academic elitist, stingy with his affection toward his neurodivergent son. Pru’s shortcomings can be extremely frustrating, too. Henkin does not gloss over the ways race, privilege, and power dictate her dynamic with Ginny.
Whose fate is crueler? True, Spence suffers from a horrendous disease. But as frightening and alienating as it is for the patient, the lives of caretakers are ravaged by ache. Pru, whose whole identity had been subsumed by marriage, now must witness her partner’s erosion. “The man who had never wanted a body, and now that’s all he was, laid out like a veal.” What will become of her life once his is over?
His last novel, The World Without You, cast a similar spell over me. The paperback came out just as I was finding my way into my novel, Lech. Like his book, mine also featured rotating points of view, and took place in the country — not in the Berkshires but in the Catskills — and centered around not one family but one town, not one July weekend, but one entire summer. Whenever I felt stalled in my project, I turned to his in an effort to dissect how he was able to maintain momentum through a relatively static story of grief, love, and family.
And so, too, with Morningside Heights. If Henkin can make a novel on Alzheimer’s not only immersive and transporting, but heartwarming, even funny at times — without veering into the sentimental, there is nothing he cannot do.
Time and again, Henkin excavates the small moment for its larger truth. When Arlo comes to live with Spence as a teenager, he cuts his half sister’s hair while she sleeps in a restrained act of violence that speaks to the scale of his envy, fury, and emotional displacement.
As for Spence, incidents compile. In addition to regular events of short-temperedness, blank stares, and amnesia, there is a mortifying bathroom accident on campus. The guilt laden time Pru goes on a date and Spence goes missing. “He’d slipped his leash, gotten to spend a half hour on his own.”
And then there is the failed blow job. In one of the most acutely devastating sex scenes I’ve ever read, Pru removes his diaper, “sulfurous and damp”, one night in an attempt to stimulate him. “She kissed his neck, forehead. There was a burbling inside him like a pot of tea.”
Expectation diminishes as the disease takes hold.“If Spence wasn’t doing well in the morning, he’d be doing even worse in the afternoon, because the passing hours marked a depletion, like gas leaking out of a tank.” Henkin, whose own father succumbed to Alzheimer’s later in life, painfully captures the slow and then fast march of losing. Analogies shift toward the inanimate. In rapid progression, Spence is “flipped like a fish.” He “teetered like a canoe,” was “handled roughly like a flank of beef,” and “sat there, limp as linguini.”
When you give this much, what is left of the self? Will Pru let herself love again? What about Sarah? Will Arlo be able to repair his heart from his father’s lifelong withholding? We read on, alongside these characters, in search of answers that open onto more questions, all of which makes Morningside Heights not only impossible to put down, but impossible to forget.
by Joshua Henkin
Pantheon Books; 304 p.