by Cheryl Mendelson
Random House, 2003
is the late 1990s, and Morningside Heights, the neighborhood
in upper Manhattan near Columbia University, is experiencing
growing pains. It is home to musicians Charles and Anne
Braithwaite and their three children, who have helped to
make the neighborhood a modest enclave for like-minded intellectuals
- socially conscious writers, scientists, and their ilk,
who may not care that the paint on their pre-war walls is
peeling or that they cannot afford designer clothes, as
long as they can satisfy reasonable desires such as the
yearly trip to Europe, tickets to the opera, and a kitchen
full of items from Dean & Deluca.
While the rougher parts of town to the north and east of Morningside
Heights, along with the shady characters who hang out on the
benches on Broadway, have tended to hold the truly wealthy
at bay, the Braithwaites are learning that it is hard to keep
a neighborhood in stasis.
Wall Street types begin to move into their building on 117th
and the coop board opts to make improvements to the lobby
that will push the monthly maintenance fees beyond the Braithwaites'
capabilities, just as the couple has learned that a fourth
child is on the way. Meanwhile, they are caught up in the
troubles of various neighborhood friends of theirs - the writer
Merrit, a thirty-nine year old woman who, the Braithwaites
lament, cannot seem to make a relationship last beyond a few
years, and the scientist Morris, who, also to the Braithwaite's
dismay, appears incapable of settling down, until he meets
the much younger psychoanalyst Lily. And to boot, all the
characters, plus a young minister from a local church, get
involved in some mysterious circumstances surrounding the
death of the Braithwaite's 103-yr-old neighbor.
Mendelson has created a cast of engaging characters and
set them in motion in a series of attention-keeping plots.
It is a round robin that feels a bit like a Jane Austin
romance (indeed it is sometimes tiresome that there seems
to be almost universal agreement among the major characters
that the biggest letdown in life would be not to find a
spouse, and that this fate cannot be suffered by nearest
and dearest - the kind of pity coming from what Bridget
Jones would refer to as "smug marrieds"); but
it is a Jane Austin fixer-upper that is rooted in modern-day
psychoanalysis, and we follow several of the characters
into their sessions. Mendelson also gives us generous insight
into her characters' professional lives, in the research-friendly
style of Franzen or Byatt that can sometimes seem self-congratulatory
but usually goes down easy. Characters get into debates
over religion in modern-day society, and we hear about the
fame-grubbing scandals in the various academic labs where
Morris has worked.
Those familiar with Morningside Heights will recognize
an accurate portrait of the neighborhood, complete with
the now-closed Grandma's and Mama Joy's, the drug addicts
waiting on soup lines, the Columbia students eating at Ollies,
and the batty old neighbors who hang out in building lobbies.
By the end of the novel, almost everyone's problems have
been solved in a way that's a little too satisfying to be
realistic, and with some twists meant to be unexpected but
that are predictable. Nonetheless "Morningside Heights"
is the first in a trilogy, and once readers have turned
its last pages, they will probably already be curious about
the next installment.
-- Christine Leahy