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Sunday June 19, 2011

The Heights: Diving into life

Through the minutiae of daily living, this novel explores the ‘big’ topics, like marriage and fidelity, and relationships and loyalty.

THIS is, I think, Peter Hedges’s most grown up novel, in terms of subject matter. In 1991, he dealt with coming-of-age issues in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (made into a movie that gave Leonardo DiCaprio his breakout role in 1993) and his 1997 follow up, An Ocean In Iowa, was about a seven-year-old boy coming to terms with the collapse of his family.

In The Heights, Hedges moves firmly into adult territory as he explores the complexities of marriage, the temptations that face couples daily, and the disillusionment of expectations not met.

At the outset, Tim and Kate Welch seem to have an almost enviable marriage. He’s a history teacher in a posh private school, she’s a stay-at-home mother to two sons. Their apartment might be cramped but it’s in upmarket New York neighbourhood, Brooklyn Heights. But there are cracks that are slowly becoming apparent. As Hedges, in typical fashion, throws the reader into the minute details of the Welches’ everyday life, the creeping suspicion arises that far from being the perfect couple, Tim and Kate are only staying together for the sake of their sons.

While Kate is being bored among the Brooklyn Heights ladies who spend their time gossiping and bitching about people they barely know, Tim is trying too hard to be the cool, popular teacher.

The plot picks up when the wealthy, beautiful, and aloof Anna Brody moves into Brooklyn Heights. Kate is instantly smitten by and curious about Anna, and the longer she hangs out with the far wealthier older woman, the more she begins to question her life. Anna’s entrance coincides with a number of life changing incidents: the forced retirement of Tim’s basketball coach father due to a sexual scandal; Kate gets a lucrative job and becomes the breadwinner while Tim becomes the stay-at-home parent; and Kate’s former lover, Jeff Slade, who is now a television star, re-appears in her life.

Once this three-tiered plot takes off, the novel becomes decidedly more interesting. While the relationship between Kate and Jeff raises the spectre of predictable sexual tension, kudos is due to Hedges for providing enough twists in this part of the plot to keep us guessing.

The multi-level plot could have become a tad too busy, but Hedges keeps everything on track by keeping the dialogue sharp and witty, the chapters short, and the storyline realistic. Hedges serves up a plot that mirrors real life. He does not provide over-the-top drama for the sake of injecting tension into a storyline.

As protagonists, Tim and Kate are more anti-hero than heroic; they’re flawed, clueless, frightened, unsure of what the next chapter in their lives will bring. Though they can be exasperating at times – Kate can seem rather aloof and Tim can be annoying about his never ending thesis – readers will likely find themselves rooting for this mismatched pair.

This is Hedges’s meditation on parenthood, marriage, and family life. Despite the exploration of these “big” topics, though, The Heights is a very easy and relatively quick read. The plot keeps the pages turning and I found myself wanting to find out if the Welches’ marriage survives the fallout from Anna Brody and Jeff Slade’s entrance into their lives.

I thought the ending was headed towards being touching, but, surprisingly, it instead seems rather anti-climactic – almost distant and cold. I wonder if Hedges had actually planned this end to his delightful novel or whether it was a case of too many editors trying to push their own versions and confusing matter? You will have to decide for yourself.

Apart from that cold-ish finale, The Heights is a great read. Fans of Hedges’s work (both novels and films) will enjoy this one.


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