The title of Joshua Henkin’s new novel, Morningside Heights, refers to the Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan crowned by Columbia University, where the book is set and where the main character, Spence Robin, is an esteemed professor of English literature. He and his wife, Pru, met when she was his doctoral student; she subsequently dropped her studies and began working in Barnard College’s Office of Development.
Many pivotal scenes take place in beloved local haunts like the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the West End Bar, and Chock Full O’Nuts. But the title Morningside Heights may also serve as a bittersweet hint about the slow deterioration that Spence endures over the brief course of his life. Once the smooth, swinging star of his academic department (lover of not only Pru, but also another former student, Linda, with whom he has a son), while still in his fifties Spence is sinking into the evening of his life and the depths of mortal humiliation as he loses his mind to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Still, though diapered and often incoherent, Spence continues to be the sun around which a fascinating constellation of characters revolve, and in whose light and warmth they thrive — or don’t.
It is after marrying Spence that Pru had decided not to pursue academia; she feared competing with her illustrious husband (he actually warned her to stay away from his turf). The secondary status she assumes as faculty wife to a scholar who seems to matter more than she does is echoed by her job at Barnard, where she unhappily flatters donors for the sake of a cause she deems greater than herself. Spence’s other classroom paramour, the free-spirited Linda, has borne him a child, Arlo, but she wanders around looking for another lover, raising her son wherever these men welcome her, whether here or abroad. Young Arlo’s continuous yearning for his father (rarely satisfied) is the major motivator of his life. Pru and Spence’s own child, Sarah, declines the opportunity to attend Columbia (where, as a faculty child, she would have had tuition waived), choosing to escape her father’s shadow by moving to the West Coastbut she is ultimately drawn back to his bedside. While the characters seem not to cohere, each moving in his or her own orbit, Spence’s illness draws them all in.
Running through the novel is a golden thread of Yiddishkeit. Despite his non-Jewish name (changed from the original Shulem), Spence is Jewish. His sister, Enid, who is institutionalized with a severe brain injury, loves to croon a Yiddish song from time to time at the institution; these melodies, and their language, atavistically soothe Arlo when he meets her. Pru’s family is also Jewish; as a newlywed, she took the step of kashering the kitchen that she and Spence shared in their first marital home. This Jewish element, like the Morningside Heights setting, lends a haimishe feel to Henkin’s novel. While families may fracture, and neurons tangle, there is a sense of home base to the book, a gravitational pull that holds love at its center.
Sonia Taitz, a Ramaz, Yale Law, and Oxford graduate, is the author of five books, including the acclaimed “second generation” memoir, The Watchmaker’s Daughter, and the novel, Great with Child. Praised for her warmth and wit by Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, People and The Chicago Tribune, she is currently working on a novel about the Zohar, the mystical source of Jewish transcendence.