Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Cool 'hood

Morningside Heights
by Cheryl Mendelson

This is a wonderful story with believable characters, but my favorite part about it was the location. Morningside Heights is a Manhattan neighborhood near Columbia University where some dear friends of ours, J. and J., own an apartment. When they do not have the apartment rented out, they let friends use it for vacations and short-term getaways. We have spent some great times in their place and have many fond memories of it. Morningside Heights makes reference to restaurants where we have eaten (Tom's diner of Seinfeld fame, Le Monde, V & T's), bookstores we have browsed in (Labyrinth Books, Bank Street Books), and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which is around the corner from the apartment we love so much. Reading the book therefore felt like going home for a visit. So much fun. I understand that Mendelson intends this book to be the first of a trilogy, all about this same area of NYC. Definitely I will have to follow up and see what happens to these people, since in some way they feel like neighbors. Mendelson herself lives in Morningside Heights, and it is clear she loves her home.

Some of the characters are a bit spoiled and entitled, and a couple others are WAAAYY over analytical and self-involved, but essentially they are like many of us. They want an intellectually and culturally rich lifestyle over one that is lavish with material goods. They long for meaningful relationships but sometimes botch their social interactions. They struggle to remain in Manhattan as the price of real estate threatens to make their lifelong neighborhood economically beyond their reach. With all of the extreme poverty in the world, it is hard to feel sorry for people who are facing a move to the suburbs because the city is too expensive, but we also can sympathize with the bewilderment of hardworking people who have been accustomed to a lifestyle that is rapidly slipping through their fingers.

On the macro level, Morningside Heights is about the gentrification of certain sections of New York City, and people who have lived in those places all their lives getting forced out. At the micro level, it is about how one family and their group of friends cope with that stress. The heart of the novel is the Braithwaite family - husband and wife Charles and Anne and their four children. Mendelson very deftly expresses the inevitable tensions and passive-aggressive manipulations that develop between Anne and Charles as they face financial stress and the chaos of a young and growing family. However, she also shows us an underlying core of strength to their relationship, a persistent "we-ness" that we sense will prevail regardless of other circumstances. The moment when the air clears between them is moving and feels real. This commitment to one another, even when things are not easy, is a core value of marriage that Mendelson is able to demonstrate with her writing without being preachy.

The family life of the Braithwaites is punctuated by the input of close friends and extended family - it is this network of people that the Braithwaites hate to leave as they prepare to move to Putnam County. I have always thought of NYC as huge and impersonal, but Mendelson's story shows us that while location may be an important factor, how we live in a place makes a huge difference in whether or not it feels like home to us.

Reverent Reader


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