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Morningside Heights: A Novel
by Joshua Henkin

Published: 2022-05-24T00:0
Paperback : 304 pages
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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Book •When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with and marries Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare ...
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Introduction

A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Book •When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with and marries Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare professor, her life takes a turn she couldn’t have anticipated.

Thirty years later, something is wrong with Spence. The Great Man can’t concentrate; he falls asleep reading The New York Review of Books. With their daughter, Sarah, away at medical school, Pru must struggle on her own to care for him. One day, feeling especially isolated, Pru meets a man, and the possibility of new romance blooms. Meanwhile, Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage has come back into their lives. Arlo, a wealthy entrepreneur who invests in biotech, may be his father’s last, best hope.

Morningside Heights is a sweeping and compassionate novel about a marriage surviving hardship. It’s about the love between women and men, and children and parents; about the things we give up in the face of adversity; and about how to survive when life turns out differently from what we thought we signed up for.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

1? ?Growing up in Bexley, in the suburbs of Columbus, Pru had been drawn to the older boys, thinking they could take her far from home. Her father was from Brooklyn, her mother from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but they met in the middle of the country, in Ann Arbor, at a freshman mixer in 1944. Pru’s father was studying engineering, and when he graduated he went to work for GM. But he wasn’t cut out for the auto industry, for its assembly lines and economies of scale, and Pru’s mother didn’t like Detroit and its suburbs—Ten Mile Road, Eleven Mile Road, Twelve Mile Road—everything measured in a car. But Pru’s father was happy in the Midwest, and when an opportunity arose in Columbus, he settled on it. And on Torah Academy, where Pru, as a kindergartner, was dropped off every morning at eight o’clock.? ?Pru liked the Hebrew songs, liked apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, liked staying home on Passover and eating matzo brei. But kindergarten became first grade became second became third, and she started to feel constrained. She had an older brother, Hank, but they weren’t close; it was just her and the other students in her class. “Torah Academy’s so Jewish,” she told her parents.? ?“Well, it is a Jewish school,” her mother said.? ?In eighth grade, on a trip to New York, the students were taken to the Streit’s Matzo Factory, and to Ratner’s for lunch. Years later, living in New York, Pru went out to La Difference, a kosher French restaurant, ostensibly high-end, but when she tasted her food, she told her friend Camille, “La Difference is this food sucks.”? ?Pru’s mother wasn’t Orthodox—she’d agreed to keep a kosher home for Pru’s father—and one time, a friend of Pru’s saw Pru’s mother at a restaurant eating breaded shrimp. When Pru confronted her, her mother said that when Pru turned eighteen she could eat as much breaded shrimp as she wanted to.? ?Was that why she was attracted to older men? If she couldn’t be eighteen, she would go out with boys who were eighteen. In seventh grade, she dated a tenth grader, captain of the JV basketball team. In high school, she went out with a young man soon to graduate from Ohio State.? ?She was two months shy of her eighteenth birthday when she arrived at Yale in 1972. There was breaded shrimp to be had everywhere, but a curious thing happened those first few weeks at college. It wasn’t that she missed her parents, though late at night, listening to her sleeping roommates, she would think of her family back in Ohio and grow teary-eyed. She lay in her dorm in her OHIOANS FOR MCGOVERN T-shirt while Derek and the Dominos looked down at her from the wall. She shivered: wasn’t it supposed to be warmer on the East Coast? Fall had come early that year, and, walking across Old Campus, she was already wearing a parka. Torah Academy was eons ago—she’d gone to public high school, where her graduating class had been four hundred strong—but she wasn’t prepared to be so far from home. Torah Academy had seemed too small and too Jewish; now Yale seemed too big and not Jewish enough.? ?She was no longer forced to keep kosher, but to her surprise, she continued to. Then spring came and along with it Passover, and she was answering questions from her secular Jewish friends, who weren’t quite as secular as she’d thought. Why weren’t peanuts kosher for Passover? Beer they understood, but corn and rice? And was it hypocritical to eat your cheeseburger on matzo?? ?She was again dating an older man, a graduate student in history, the president of the Yale chapter of SDS. Returning from services one Friday night, she joined him at an antiwar rally. One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war! Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win! But when someone passed her the megaphone, she handed it back to him because she wasn’t allowed to use a megaphone on Shabbat.? ?She did theater at Yale, and when she moved to New York she tried to make a go of it as an actor. Camille had done theater at Yale, too, and they dreamed of starring onstage together. They found an apartment in the West Village and worked as temps. When their bosses weren’t looking, they would leave work early for auditions. “Ah, the casting couch,” Camille said.? ?“Would you do that?” Pru said. “Sleep with someone to get a part?”? ?“Why not?”? ?Pru wondered: Was she less ambitious than Camille? Was she simply a prude?? ?One day, Camille announced that she was quitting theater. She was tired of temping, tired of auditioning for terrible parts. Secretly she’d applied to law school. She was starting NYU in the fall.? ?Maybe she was wrong, Pru thought: maybe she was the more ambitious one.? ?Or maybe she just clung to things. She had a new boyfriend, forty-seven when she was only twenty-two. “My God,” she told Camille, as if she’d only just realized it. “Matthew’s more than double my age.”? ?“Well, good for you!” Camille said.? ?For a time there was talk about marrying Matthew. At least Matthew was talking about it, and Pru, flattered, started to talk about it, too. Convention be damned, she thought, even as she cleaved to her own conventions, keeping two sets of dishes, one for milk and one for meat, making sure on Friday evenings before the sun set to extinguish the joint she’d been smoking.? ?But eventually, she and Matthew broke up, and she moved uptown and started graduate school at Columbia, in the doctoral program in English literature.? ?Her first day of class she looked up from her seminar table and saw Spence Robin, her Shakespeare professor, enter the room. He was only six years older than she was, but he was the professor, Columbia’s rising star, so when she passed him on a snowy afternoon outside Chock full o’Nuts, she glanced away.? ?“Are you pretending to be shy, Ms. Steiner?” That was how he addressed the class—Ms. Steiner, Mr. Jones, Mr. Thompson, Ms. Dunleavy—doing it with an edge of humor, as if it were a mild joke. “We do spend most of our day outside the classroom. It’s not like we just materialize in Philosophy Hall.”? ?A gale blew past them, and Spence’s jacket collar flapped up to his ears. His shock of auburn hair was covered in snow, and Pru was tempted to offer him her hat. But her hat was pink, and if she gave it to him, then she would get covered in snow, and she knew he wouldn’t countenance that.? ?They seated themselves in Chock full o’Nuts. “The coffee’s terrible here,” Spence said.? ?Pru agreed, though she was inured to terrible coffee. She drank terrible coffee most days, often from Chock full o’Nuts.? ?Spence removed a packet of peanuts. It was an old habit, he explained, a product of his fast metabolism. He’d been so thin as a boy he’d been sent to summer camp by the Fresh Air Fund, and when he failed to gain more than a few pounds, he got to stay for an extra two weeks.? ?The snow was falling harder now; at this rate, they’d be skiing home. Pru said, “Are we going to talk about Coriolanus?”? ?“Do you want to talk about Coriolanus?”? ?“As long as you don’t make me recite.” It was what Spence did in class, saying that word, recite, with the same little ironical smile he wore when he called her Ms. Steiner.? ?“How about you tell me where you’re from?”? ?Under the influence of the coffee, and urged on by the wind coming through the open door, Pru started to loosen. She was from the suburbs of Columbus, she said.? ?“Sounds like a tautology to me.”? ?She surprised herself by saying, “You little snob!”? ?“Little?”? ?It was true: he must have been six feet tall.? ?“And what’s in the suburbs of Columbus?”? ?“Oh, just a bunch of complicated Jewish families like mine.”? ?“Another tautology?”? ?“So you know about complicated Jewish families?”? ?“I come from one.”? ?This surprised her. With his rangy, slender frame, his pale face, and thatch of red hair, he put her in mind of the Irish countryside. And Spence—she thought of Spencer Tracy—not to mention his last name—Robin—well, you could have fooled her.? ?“My Christian name is Shulem,” he said.? ?“That doesn’t sound very Christian to me.”? ?In kindergarten, he said, he’d changed his name to Spence. At five, he became an Anglo-Saxon, at six a Francophile. “It’s the old immigrant story. I was trying to escape the Lower East Side.”? ?“Well, you’ve done a good job.” He was the youngest tenured member of the English department; the author, at thirty, of an award-winning book; a guest on PBS with Bill Moyers. “You’re not still religious, are you?”? ?He laughed. His paternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Lithuania, but his parents’ god had been Communism. He hadn’t even been Bar Mitzvahed. One Yom Kippur, he’d gone to the Museum of Natural History to stare up at the great blue whale.? ?She told him about growing up Orthodox in the Midwest, how she’d moved to New York to become an actor. “So here I am,” she said, as if everything she’d done—leaving Columbus, going to Yale, moving to New York to do theater—was in order to be seated where she was now, having coffee with Spence Robin.? ?“I could never be an actor,” he said. “I don’t like to perform.”? ?“That’s not what I heard.” His lectures were said to be packed to the rafters; people were up in the nosebleed seats.? ?“Acting’s different,” he said. “I’m a shy man.”? ?Yet here he was, talking to her—talking to this stranger.? ?But then he stopped talking, and she became shy herself. The snow had tapered off, and with the weather no longer keeping them indoors, she thought she should make her getaway. She got up, and he followed her.? ?“That’s me,” she said, in front of her building.? ?“And that’s me.” Spence pointed up Claremont Avenue. “If I work on my arm, I could throw snowballs at your balcony.”? ?“I’d like that.” And then, feeling foolish—she wanted him to throw snowballs at her balcony?—she rushed inside.?... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Explore the role that Judaism plays in Pru’s life. Why does her observance ebb and flow? At which moments in her life does she reevaluate her commitment to Judaism? Is her Jewishness a central pillar of her identity? Why or why not?

2. Discuss Ginny’s role in the Robin-Steiner household. Why does Pru decide to hire Ginny? How does Ginny relate to Spence? What sacrifices does Ginny make in her yearslong service to her employers? How do Pru and Ginny each understand the financial aspect of their relationship?

3. How does Arlo’s decision to move in with Spence, Pru, and Sarah alter the family dynamic? Is he embraced equally by all? When and why do tensions arise?

4. Explore Spence and Arlo’s early relationship. How does Spence try to connect with his son? Are his attempts successful? Why or why not? How does his approach to parenting Arlo compare to his approach to parenting Sarah?

5. Why does Arlo decide to cut Sarah’s hair, and why does Sarah choose not to reveal him to her parents as the culprit? What does this incident suggest about Arlo and Sarah’s understanding of each other? How does this episode affect their relationship in the years to come?

6. Discuss Arlo’s understanding of his aunt Enid. Why does his first visit to the rehabilitation center make such an impression on him? Why does he decide to return once more, years later, after his father’s ceremony?

7. Why is Arlo so eager to organize a family reunion? What does he hope to gain from it? Does the event rise to his expectations? Why or why not?

8. Discuss Arlo’s relationship with his mother. Does he thrive in the itinerant life she provides for him? How does his time in New York affect his perception of her? Does their relationship ever reach a place of peace and understanding? Why or why not?

9. Compare and contrast Sarah’s and Arlo’s coping strategies. How does each character make sense of their father’s decline? How does his illness affect their choices and life trajectories? Does either character harbor regrets about their relationship with their father, and if so, how are these regrets manifested?

10. Consider the themes of ambition and success as they are depicted in the novel. What are each character’s ambitions, and what obstacles must they overcome in their pursuits? How does each character’s success—or lack thereof—impact the formation of their identity?

11. Examine Arlo’s path through higher education and beyond. Why does he lie to Sarah about his admission to Reed, and what is the true story about his time there? How does he carve out a professional niche for himself? How do you make sense of his competing desires to succeed and to reject academia entirely? Has Arlo met his father’s expectations of him?

12. Explore Pru’s attraction to Walter. What draws her to him, and what about their relationship gives her pause? How does her connection with Walter compare to the connection she shares with Spence? Do you think it’s ethical for Pru and Walter to pursue a relationship while Spence is still alive? Why or why not?

13. Discuss the final years of Spence’s life. How does Pru manage? What helps her come to terms with her husband’s fate? What insight does she glean about her husband and his early life as his decline accelerates?

14. Discuss the conclusion of the novel. How would you characterize its tone? Is this the ending you were expecting? Why or why not?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

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Member Reviews

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by ebach (see profile) 07/19/21

Not many authors could have written MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS as Joshua Henkin did. The story of Pru and Spence might have been a bore. But Henkin ensured, simply, that once you start this book, y... (read more)

 
  "An exploration of the dynamics of relationships"by thewanderingjew (see profile) 06/18/21

Morningside Heights, Joshua Henkin, author; Kathe Mazur, Shane Baker, narrators
As this story develops, it slowly and carefully illustrates the varied relationships that exist within famili
... (read more)

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