Morningside Heights (Cheryl Mendelson)

In a word: charming

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An artsy New York City neighborhood. A cast of characters: a husband and wife trying to maintain their standard of living as their family grows and expenses rise. Their friend, a socially awkward biologist in need of a career breakthrough. Their other friend, a successful scholar and writer worried she’s missed her chance for marriage and children. A neighborhood priest, good-intentioned but full of his own doubts.

Mostly this book just pulls back the curtain and lets you watch these people as they go about their lives. There’s a plot, of sorts, but it’s only a gentle velvet rope, nudging the meandering story along toward the inevitable happy ending.

Although this is a modern novel about liberal, urban characters, this book has an old-fashioned feel. The writing is pleasant and un-ironic, without any harshness or snark. The characters are funny and quirky, but portrayed sympathetically and gently. At the center of the story is the character Anne Braithwaite, who personifies the novel itself with her sometimes naive, but ultimately vindicated optimism.

Throughout the novel, you’ll encounter clever characterization and wry cultural commentary. This was one of my favorite paragraphs, written from the perspective of one of the many minor characters populating the novel:

Jonathan had few romantic aspirations. He only wished that in the ordinary cyclical course of things life would turn more Victorian, with the bachelorhood or spinsterhood of anyone over the age of thirty accepted as a permanent state unless or until the spinster or bachelor chose to surprise the world and take a mate. As things were, people who were unmated but middle-aged, or nearly so, were still in the game. There was no repose, no ease available to someone like him, who would always have ended up a bachelor. Women who had turned forty, as Jonathan himself had, were always looking him up and down as if he were some prime pig, trying to gauge his marital potential and hoping for an invitation to the movies, insisting that he carry the ball in some unduly prolonged version of the mating game. Dating and getting fixed up, dieting, people over fifty still sucking in their stomachs and wearing come-on clothes–it was all insanity. It had been far better when women past their twenties were simply not marriageable, and left men like him alone.

Reading plot-driven books is like hopping on a roller coaster or a race car; this is much more like people watching from a cafe table on a busy New York street.* But if you’re a reader who finds a leisurely pace appealing, grab a cup of coffee and snuggle up with this one.

(I realize that sipping coffee in a sidewalk cafe is more Paris than New York City, but work with me here. Just imagine that such an opportunity exists, complete with the ability to hear the inner thoughts of the colorful cast of characters who chance to pass by.)

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