Booklicious: Booklicious Reviews: The Heights

March 30, 2010



Peter Hedges of About a Boy and Dan in Real Life fame is back with his first novel since writing 1991’s What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and the eager anticipation surrounding The Heights (Dutton) was right on the mark. The novel centers on a couple in Brooklyn who are struggling to make it financially and living in the smallest apartment of a swanky, upscale neighborhood, The Heights.

Hedges paints Kate and Tim’s lives incredibly accurately. Due to his painstaking detail, the story ends up being so honest that at times, reading is borderline painful. Their small apartment, in which some rooms do triple duty (“our living room/dining room/toy room”), the two small kids running around needing constant love and attention, (“Never enough. Never enough. A parent can never, ever do enough”) and the fact that Tim had yet to complete his dissertation were so personal to my own life that there were moments I thought Peter Hedges had spied on my family and translated it into this fabulous piece of work.

Hedges initially places these characters in an extremely upscale setting, which is completely out of their league. They work to stretch Tim’s meager salary, mainly because Kate loves the neighborhood and the benefits of living in an affluent area. Their neighbors are another story, though, as the couple appear slightly on the outs socially. Whether that’s due to the obvious lack of wealth of Tim and Kate’s part, or if it’s simply due to predetermined cliques within the neighborhood seems to depend upon the different characters with whom Tim and Kate interact.

Tim is a history high school teacher, and is adored by one student in particular, a hysterically awkward character named Bea. Tim doesn’t seem entirely satisfied with his professional placement, and, after six years of work, still hasn’t made any progress on his dissertation, aptly named “The History of Loss.” Kate previously worked for a nonprofit, with the intention of spreading goodwill around the world. She left her work after giving birth to her two sons, Sam and Teddy. In her attempt to disassociate herself from her seemingly horrible mother, Kate throws herself into raising her children. As Kate and Tim go about their lives, their individual insecurities and self-doubts creep onto the pages, while simultaneously they are offered their respective “what if?” fantasies – of course, at the potential demise of their marriage.

Both characters are offered their individual pieces of fruit from the garden - Kate‘s in the shape of a previous lover; Tim’s in the form of a new neighbor. While the couple is independently intrigued with the arrival of Anna Brody, Anna seems to have her own agenda, which will keep the reader wondering about her true intentions until the final chapters. While both potential "what ifs?” are essential to the story, the focus of the plot remains strongly on Kate and Tim as they make powerful – or horrible, or awkward, or wrong – decisions that will end up affecting their relationship in profound ways.

As the different motivations of the characters are revealed, it’s easy to see Hedges’ brilliance. He has well-crafted, candid characters thinking powerfully mundane thoughts: being self-conscious about how they’re received by their neighbors, how ratty their old underwear is, or feeling concerned about the inevitable weight gain that comes with age. Bundle this with the angst of not wanting to morph into your parents (but finding that you are, in fact, becoming them), and as a reader you have an amazing look at how individuals respond to the daily attempts of society to control and guide your emotions and actions, and certainly not always for the better.

There are only minor critiques I could offer; none of them are even worth mentioning, considering how well done this novel is. It kept me hooked from the beginning until the very end, and left me thinking about it long after I finished the final page. Peter Hedges masterfully creates a story of love, lust, relationships, and everything in between to bring about a bittersweet closure that will stick with you long after you’ve stopped reading.


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