Tuesday, April 06, 2010

*The Heights* by Peter Hedges

Psychologists suggests that passion as a measurable chemical conceit lasts about two years or less in a marriage.
Any one couple may react differently from another, so it follows that dimming ardor is a perennial favourite subject for novelists.
Kate and Tim Welch are the principals in the new Peter Hedges novel The Heights, named for the tony Brooklyn neighbourhood known for it's brownstone houses and monied history.
The Heights is as much a character in the book as anyone else.

A hostess of an annual Labour Day dinner party notes,
"Just for the sake of argument, let's imagine a small chemical weapon is detonated in the centre of the Heights, say at Starbucks, and only this neighbourhood is wiped out.
There goes most of the brains of Wall Street, much of publishing. Gone are some of the brightest lights of this brightly lit city. That cartoonist for the New Yorker, the food critic for the Times, the managing editor of the New York Sun. I'm just saying, there's no place I'd rather live."
Kate and Tim are decidedly less well off than their others, but almost accidentlally find themselves in the good graces of the leisure class. They are specifically of interest to a new couple who have recently bought the largest brownstone in the neighbourhood, Anna Brody and Phillip Ainsworth. When Kate lands a job at a large philanthropic enterprise, she and Tim find their social calendar suddenly overflowing and the mobility and money reveal cracks in the marriage and new temptations as well.

Under pressure to finish a dissertation, Tim finds himself falling under the spell of Anna Brody. Kate is happily married to the a solid history teacher, but in her past is a glamourous TV actor known to millions, who has never gotten over losing Kate years earlier.
From here the obvious fun is in watching two speeding cars that the reader is pretty sure are going to crash into the same brick wall.

Beyond that, however, Peter Hedges, who gained international attention with What's Eating Gilbert Grape, brings a Midwestern sensibility to his urbane New York setting and makes (almost) everyone lovable here.
Major and minor characters alike are similar in that the mistakes they make aren't dark or venal, they are merely extensions of their truer selves. The work of Tom Perrotta and Lionel Shriver (two of my very favourites) come to mind, although Hedges isn't as interested in putting his characters on a slippery slope of amorality.

On a playdate, Tim and Anna are watching over their kids and Tim sees storm clouds ahead.
"She paid me with compliments, and it was cloying at first, all the praise. But I grew to like it. She also had a quality charismatic people often possess.
When she spoke to you, you felt as if you were the only person in the world. She was also a bit erratic and could say something impulsive and inappropriate.For example, while we were in the ball pit, she said, "I'll bet you and Kate have great sex."
I liked my answer, "That would be Kate's and my business wouldn't it.?"
"I'm sorry if I made you blush. I guess I just need to believe that someone out there is having..."
"Okay," I said, "We have great sex."
"I knew it."
I neglected to mention: About once every six months."

Themes of money, temptation, class, and the joys and disappointments of parenting make for a great book club title, and Hedges brings it all off with economy and flair.
There is also a kernel of wisdom in The Heights that I wish I had access to in high school. It was bestowed upon a young Tim Welch, and I sorely wish I had been priivy to it.
It would have solved a multitude of adolescent troubles.

The Heights is a great read.


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