Joshua Henkin is an emotionally generous, deft, witty, and deeply intelligent writer, and his new novel, “Morningside Heights,” displays these qualities in spades. The story begins in the 1970s, when Pru Steiner leaves the Mid-West to attend Yale and then Columbia’s English Literature Ph.D. program. She soon attracts the interest of Spence Robin, her Shakespeare professor. “The youngest tenured member of the English department; the author, at thirty, of an award-winning book; a guest on PBS with Bill Moyers,” Spence is “the rock-star professor” all the girls pine for. Pru is surprised, flattered, and ultimately swept away by his attentions, and their whirlwind, illicit romance results in an engagement.
Almost as soon as she’s accepted his proposal, however, Spence reveals two big secrets. First, he has a “brain-damaged” sister who was in a “car crash when she was sixteen.” Spence takes Pru along on one of his regular visits to Enid in her nursing home, and reveals a heavy burden of guilt. Second, he was previously married and has a toddler son, Arlo, with whom he is no longer in touch.
Bewildered and unsettled, Pru ultimately accepts Spence’s excuse for his sins of omission: he was afraid of losing her. Wilting in his formidable shadow, unable to conceive of making her own way as a scholar of Renaissance literature, she takes the decision to drop out of graduate school, worried that “[p]eople would say she succeeded because of Spence, the youngest English professor ever to receive tenure at Columbia. Spence, the golden boy: even his hair shone like ore in the sun. She was the girl he’d plucked from class, and it made her feel plucked just to think about it, like a dandelion ripped from the ground.”
She is retreating in part because of her insecurity — but there is also the fact that that she’s pregnant.
After giving birth to a daughter, Sarah, Pru becomes a stay-at-home mom; in her spare time, she studies French and does community theater. Ultimately, she takes a job in development for Barnard, but feels “vaguely ashamed” that while she’d “planned on being a professor…now she was a supplicant.” Spence continues to rack up accolades and awards— a Guggenheim, a Mellon, and a MacArthur Genius grant, which allows them to buy an apartment off Central Park West. Scattered throughout these opening chapters are indications that things will go wrong, that Spence will fall ill at a relatively young age.
We flash forward twenty years. Sarah leaves for medical school and Spence seems “less alert,” always feels cold, and misreads or misremembers things. After his T.A. tells Pru that Spence’s teaching evaluations are plummeting because of his confused and distracted lectures, she takes him for a full medical evaluation. The diagnosis is early onset Alzheimer’s. Spence is only fifty-nine.
Told in eight sections, the novel abruptly shifts focus and perspective often, resulting in a choppy narrative. After learning of Spence’s diagnosis, we jump back to Arlo’s peripatetic childhood with his alluring but irresponsible bohemian mother and summer visits to his father. He eventually moves in with Pru, Spence, and Sarah, struggles in school, and is diagnosed with dyslexia. Sibling rivalry and teenage shenanigans result in Pru throwing up her hands and Arlo calling his mother to rescue him from this family.
One section chronicles Pru’s hiring stalwart and fiercely loving Ginny as Spence’s caregiver, Spence’s forced retirement from Columbia, and Sarah’s medical school travails. The next returns to teenaged Arlo and his growing up “determined to be the next Steve Jobs.” Other sections describe Spence’s horrific decline, the family’s grasping at hope via a drug trial, Pru’s tentative romance with Walter, a man caring for his Parkinsons-afflicted ex-wife, Arlo’s becoming an immensely “wealthy biotech investor,” and the inexorable march towards Spence’s death and Pru’s vexed liberation.
Despite its sensitivity and wit, “Morningside Heights” never succeeds in being either deeply engrossing or deeply moving. The time-jumps, especially the skip from Sarah’s toddlerhood to the onset of Spence’s Alzheimer’s, with descriptions of the marriage postponed or entirely occluded, have the effect of undermining our emotional attachment to the characters and our understanding of their bonds with each other. The multiple perspectives add texture but also loosen our connection to Pru and Spence. Spence in particular is never fully inhabited by the narrator and remains an enigmatic, rather blurry figure.
The novel’s lack of strong focus is perhaps best evidenced by its misleading and misguided title. References to the Upper West Side neighborhood that houses Columbia dot the novel, but the place never acquires the status of a resonant setting. On the novel’s last two pages, however, Henkin and Pru suddenly turn their attention to the neighborhood, and as nostalgic references to streets and businesses pile up, it almost feels as if Henkin is trying to discover a theme that has eluded him and his characters heretofore. The novel’s last few sentences are strange and unsatisfying. “Morningside Heights” is a worthy and accomplished novel that sadly doesn’t either wholly win the affections or command our admiration for its less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts aesthetic achievement.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’'
Pantheon, 304 pages, $26.95