The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Joshua Henkin’s ‘Morningside Heights,’ a married couple copes with an unexpected illness


Joshua Henkin’s prior novels (“The World Without You,” “Matrimony,” “Swimming Across the Hudson”) tend to linger in mind long after plot particulars have slipped into memory’s mists, for a shared quality of voice — a voice perhaps best characterized by compassionate attention to modern human predicaments. In remarkably plain and quiet prose, Henkin has explored the exigencies of marriage and families (especially recombined families) through unflinching yet kind depictions of the ways we live now.

His thoughtful new novel, “Morningside Heights,” proves no exception. Without fanfare, it establishes its principals and premise: Pru Steiner, a pretty, young English lit student, easily decides to marry Spence Robin, her handsome, confident, robustly ambitious Shakespeare professor at Columbia. Pru enjoys their complementarity: “She was good at a lot of things, but she wasn’t outstanding at any one thing. . . . That was one of the things she liked about Spence. His own drive and single-mindedness made her feel ambitious vicariously.”

Joshua Henkin’s ‘The World Without You’

Smoothly, Henkin traces the arc of the couple’s initially pleasant, prosperous life together. A baby girl, Sarah, arrives, and she duly obliges them by “[becoming] a toddler,” then a trouble-free child. Spence solidifies his reputation as an adored professor and scholar, nabbing big awards — including two Guggenheims and a MacArthur. His success allows Pru to take an innocuous job soliciting donors at Barnard, “Columbia’s sister school, [allowing] Spence’s burnish to rub off on her.”

As early as Page 13, however, we’re alerted of trouble to come, as spry young Spence commands Pru to notice his filling-free teeth and watch him sprint around the block, demonstrating his perfect health. “Years later, when Spence got sick, she would wonder whether he’d been warning her that night.”

Sign up for the Book Club newsletter

Other shadows appear: Spence turns out to have a difficult young son, Arlo, by a flaky former lover. Pru and Spence flounder as they strive to incorporate the boy as a part-time family member. Arlo is dyslexic, resentful, wounded; he disappears periodically, causes strife, harasses his half sister. Alongside this, Pru’s self-esteem wobbles for not excelling at a consuming passion like her husband does: “She’d planned on being a professor,” and petitioning for donations “made her feel vaguely ashamed.”

“Morningside” handles time with crisp efficiency, pairing Sarah’s breezy entrance into medical school at UCLA with frank hints of Spence’s imminent physical and mental demise. At 57, Spence feels cold more easily, needs more sleep, “[nods] off reading the New York Review of Books” and “[seems] less alert.” Soon, Pru is forced to accept the accelerating evidence and undertake an anguished, intensifying battle to cope at every level.

Spence’s diagnosis, divulged relatively early, sharpens the novel’s structural challenge: to keep readers invested, eager to learn how these lives will play out. It draws us in — and on — by paying out details of Spence’s deterioration like a trail of clues, alongside Pru’s stumbling efforts to coexist with them: “She was lonely without Spence and — this was worse — she was lonely with him.”

Notably and satisfyingly, much of “Morningside” takes place against a New York City that is clearly beloved to its author. Henkin tours a wealth of landmarks and neighborhoods with authority and affection (and you don’t need to know the city to relish them). “Spence’s colleague’s building was made of glass, and as they ascended in the elevator they could see the sparkle of the East River, the Pepsi-Cola sign blinking at them. The planes were descending to LaGuardia, casting their shadows across Queens.”

20 books to read this summer

And when anxious young Arlo wanders the city seeking any sense of repose or stability, “Grand Central . . . at five o’clock . . . was as busy as a wasp hive. [It] and Penn Station were all New York was and movement was the city’s resting point.” The novel’s closing chapter, reciting names of streets, businesses, storefronts — some still standing, some gone — reads like a kind of commemorative prayer.

It’s finally Pru’s mighty struggle that drives this utterly contemporary story, a struggle whose nature is peculiarly hapless, invented-in-flight. Quietly told, the story nonetheless pulses with insistence: Attention must be paid. This subtle urgency opens our own awareness, lens-like, upon the implied human task, larger than any single calamity — that of attending to relentless change, loss, finitude. Fittingly, Pru, who’d long felt ashamed for lacking a defining passion, will demonstrate consummate passion in her nonstop exertions to care for beloveds and, never least, to survive.

Sidelight stories give a necessary, realistic sense of continuity. Arlo becomes something no one foresaw. Pru meets a man — not a rescuer — with whom she may or may not spend more time. She also labors to support caregivers, who carry their own burdens. By “Morningside’s” close, the sweep of Pru’s experience — the ways it has taught her — have also taught us: “Eventually [Spence] would stop recognizing her. . . . He wouldn’t know who she was. She didn’t want to be there for that, but she would be there for that, as she would be there for everything.”

Joan Frank’s newest novel is “The Outlook for Earthlings.” Recent works include “Where You’re All Going” and “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place.”

Morningside Heights

By Joshua Henkin

Pantheon. 304 pp. $26.95

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.