Morn­ing­side Heights: A Novel

  • Review
By – June 15, 2021

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.

Discussion Questions