In his book “Morningside Heights”, Joshua Henkin tells the story of a family and how they face the devastating toll that Alzheimer’s disease takes on the head of their family, a beloved husband and father. It is a touching and moving story of how this cruel disease can devastate a brilliant and talented individual and affect every member of the family.
Henkin, who lives in Brooklyn, is an award-winning author and was a guest speaker in September at the Provincetown Book Festival. In his previous novels – “The World Without You”, “Swimming Across the Hudson” and “Matrimony” – Henkin has focused on the complexity of human dilemmas, and he continues this exploration of the demands, expectations and complexities of a marriage and family.
âMorningside Heightsâ was released in June.
The story begins after Pru ââSteiner, who has just moved to New York City, realizes that his hopes for success as an actor will not come true. She decides to enroll at Columbia University to pursue graduate studies in English literature. Here, Pru takes a class in which she falls in love with her teacher, Spence Robin. Spence is a young, handsome and brilliant Shakespeare expert, six years his senior. Despite university prohibitions between professor and student, the two fall in love and soon marry.
A family is growing
Pru and Spence begin to raise a family – with the birth of their daughter Sarah and infrequent visits from Spence’s son, Arlo, a child from his failed first marriage. Spence’s career takes off; he bolstered his reputation as an academic by winning two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Mellon Foundation Prize and a MacArthur Foundation Prize. Pru, to support Spence’s career, holds a position as a development manager at Barnard, Columbia’s sister school. Their life together just couldn’t be better.
But as the couple reach their fifties, tragedy strikes. Spence was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 57. Readers familiar with the debilitating symptoms of this disease will understand firsthand why Spence’s decline is so heartbreaking. From the status of acclaimed professor to one who now wanders the halls of the university, he forgets his subjects, remains silent in front of his class and must ask his teaching assistants to instruct his students.
Forced into retirement by university, his illness accelerated. He forgets birthdays, is unable to associate familiar faces with their associated names, unknowingly wanders and gets lost, and eventually begins to lose control of his bodily functions. Pru is now forced to hire a guard assistant to help manage and take care of Spence. She employs Ginny, a day care aide, to watch and help Spence while she works. Henkin’s introduction of Ginny and her son Rafe, a hemophiliac, adds an intriguing side story to the tragedy that follows.
Watch a drop
Seeing Spence decline from a glorified and brilliant genius to a man unable to handle the basic functions of life is painful and distressing. We are seeing its deterioration and its impact on Pru and her now adult children, Sarah and Arlo. Sarah, who is in medical school, uses her expertise to try to find ways to help her father. Arlo, who in trying to prove his worth to his father has achieved financial success, uses the use of his money to help his father participate in a drug trial – one that does not directly succeed.
Henkin’s description of Pru and her uphill struggle is what really drives the story. Her character is endearing, as we follow her journey through one of the most divisive situations a loving spouse faces. Henkin achieves a nuanced and insightful portrayal of Pru that brings a dramatic and painful understanding of the impact of the loss of a spouse, the achievement, and the choices Pru faces.
A family changes
Henkin’s development of the Sarah and Arlo stories gives a credible sense of uniformity to this story. It realistically shows the development of a family, how they are related and how they deal with this cruel disease.
As the story ends, we saw Pru’s transformation from wife and lover to caregiver. It is a poignant and moving story. As Pru comes to realize that Spence would soon stop recognizing her and no longer know who she was, she realizes, “She didn’t want to be there for this, but she would be there for it, like she would be there for everything.” . âHenkin delivered an intimate look at marriage and the intricacies of love and family.
By Joshua Henkin
Pantheon, 304 pages, $ 26.95