Mendelson, Cheryl. Morningside Heights.

NY: Random House, 2003.

Remember those big, fat multi-generational family sagas that were popular early in the 20th century? This marvelous novel reminds me in some ways of them — except that it’s only about 300 pages long. On the other hand, the narrative is so dense on the page and the writing is so rich, it feels like three times that length — and I mean that in a good way.

It’s a very easy read, but Mendelson (who, surprisingly, is alo the author of the nonfiction Home Comforts) doesn’t waste a word anywhere. And while I expect some people will complain that the pace is too slow, especially in the first couple of chapters, I think “leisurely” is a better description.

Morningside Heights is the neighborhood surrounding Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Since World War II, it’s been a haven for academics, musicians, scientists, authors, and intellectuals of every stripe. The stockbrokers and big-time lawyers have gone elsewhere but there’s still a fair amount of money around. The Braithwaites — Charles and Anne, both pushing forty, and their three young children — have a too-small apartment on West 117th Street in which they have lived happily since their marriage twenty years before. Charles sings opera and Anne has basically given up her own musical career (and income-earning) in favor of raising the kids (all of whom also show considerable creative talent), but the times are changing, the condo maintenance and private school fees are going up again, and they’re sliding deeper into debt each year. Accomplishment has always been far more important to them than money for its own sake. Yet while the kids wear hand-me-downs, Anne still insists on putting lobster and caviar on the table, and spending thousands on child-size violins. And now she’s pregnant again. Will they be forced to leave the City and move out to the distant suburbs? That’s a very bleak prospect for such a deeply urban family used to easy access to bookstores, local shops, museums, and concerts.

But the Braithwaites are part of a strong and supportive local network of relatives and friends — all of whom also are shocked at the possibility of the Braithwaites abandoning Manhattan. One of this group is Merrit, of whom everyone feels protective; she’s an independent scholar and author with a growing international reputation, who, at thirty-eight, is beginning to realize just how lonely she is and how much she longs for a mate and (especially) a child. Another is Morris, Charles’s best friend for many years; he’s a geneticist, most recently working at Stanford, who has taken a short-term position at Columbia to try to complete a series of experiments that will get his career going in the direction he desires. He also very much wants a family, but he seems always to get involved with the wrong women. A new recruit, in a manner of speaking, is the Episcopalian Father Merriweather, assistant priest at St. Ursula’s, who gets drawn into the Braithwaites’ circle by outside circumstances; he earned a law degree but gave up tax shelters for managing the church’s soup kitchen.

The catalyst that drives the narrative is the death at 103 of Lizzie Miller, who lived across the hall from the Braithwaites and whose parents were among the original tenants of the building before the Great War. She had a couple of excellent full-time caregivers and Anne always figured she was comfortable in her old age, but the unsettling facts about Lizzie’s true situation begin gradually to come to light. Beyond this, there are another dozen supporting characters whom Mendelson also draws in vivid colors and who quickly pull you into the story. As noted, the pace is thoughtful and methodical and we also witness the intellectual processes of a number of fascinating people who live with their minds, not their hands — but all of them all exceedingly human for all that. Best of all the characters, though, is the community of Morningside Heights itself.

Published in: on 23 November 2012 at 6:31 am  Leave a Comment  
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