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Morningside Heights
by Cheryl Mendelson
Random House, 2003

It 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.
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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



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