By Peter Hedges
Dutton, $25.95, 304 pages
The Heights in Peter Hedges’ novel of the same name is Brooklyn Heights in New York, a leafy neighborhood of families living in unspoiled brownstones with mouth watering views of Manhattan. Here stay-at-home moms organize play dates for their kids and dinner parties and gossipy morning latte-klatches for themselves. Most dads are bankers or lawyers. Tim Welch is a history teacher, so he and his wife, Kate, don’t have as much money as most of their neighbors. They live in a tiny apartment; they quail at the sight of the utility bills. Still, they love living in the Heights, and adore each other and their two little boys; for whom they are successfully creating the happy family life they themselves never knew as children.
“Somehow in these bumpy, broken years of the early twenty-first century, we had navigated our way to something good and simple,” Tim says, reflecting on their nine years of marriage. Then things change. Two men from Kate’s past get in touch with her. One is Jeff, an ex-boyfriend, now TV star, who tells her he still loves her. The other is her old boss, who offers her a well-paid job at a charitable foundation. She takes the job, which solves some of the financial problems, and Tim takes time off work to look after the children, which also enables him to work on his monster of a dissertation.
The other thing that happens is that Anna Brody moves into the neighborhood. She’s beautiful, elegant, and rich. Everyone wants to meet her, but she’s pretty unforthcoming - though not with the Welches. She picks Kate as her friend, and admires Tim for his quirkiness and kindness to children. With opportunities to work on things they enjoy, more money, and a snazzier social life, things seem to be looking up for Tim and Kate. But actually they are unraveling. And they don’t see it happening until they have lost the confidence - the innocence really - that has sustained them.
As a historian, Tim claims that loss is what history is all about. His dissertation is on the “History of Loss.” In the classroom, he gets kids to think about historical events from the point of view of “losers” as well as “winners”: the Cuban missile crisis as Castro experiences it, for example. But in Tim’s book, loss is not bad; it’s inevitable. He believes therefore that it’s important to “Lose. Lose early, lose often. For it’s how you lose that counts.” “The Heights” tells readers how Tim and Kate lost - or rather, traces the unwitting steps they took toward loss.
Author Peter Hedges is best known for his novel “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” He wrote the screenplay for the film version and also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “About a Boy.” His work in film as writer and director profoundly affects “The Heights.” Mimicking film’s ability to show us how two people respond to the same event, he lets Kate and Tim tell their own tales, giving them each sections of the novel to tell us what they are thinking and feeling.
Films make every shot, every scene count, using them to evoke a whole way of life or a complex personality. Mr. Hedges’ most extraordinary feat in “The Heights” is to borrow this effect, conveying his characters’ presence by brief, seemingly simple descriptions of daily happenings. The Welches’ boys and Anna’s little girl bounce off the pages. We see Anna offering Kate her designer dresses, insisting she try them on and then giving her the beautiful Fortuny gown that suits her so perfectly. We can visualize Tim larking with his kids and fending off Bea, the student who has a crush on him. What we don’t always get is the thing that novelists can provide so well: that deep sense of character and motivation that drives the action - in this case the disappearance of “something good and simple” from the Welches’ lives.
It’s not that Tim and Kate can’t reflect on themselves. Rather, it is that Mr. Hedges’ precise style - words accurately chosen to suggest a world and its zeitgeist - is not adapted to the discursiveness that can convey complexity and ambiguity. Evidence of this is that though Kate and Tim each tell their own stories, their voices don’t sound different. And Bea sounds quite like them, even though her sections are studded with teenage argot. The effect is that this novel reads like a long short story.
Nonetheless, “The Heights” offers many pleasures. It beautifully evokes Brooklyn Heights as both a particular place in New York and an archetype of any small middle-class town that is a wonderful place to live and bring up children. Peter Hedges takes a sharp-eyed look at the people who live there, wittily suggesting the fashionable foibles of our day, yet never cattily undercutting those for whom they are a way of life. The clarity of observation, the particularity of the language, the control of pace combine to make this book a pleasure to read. They also make it a page turner. But once the back cover is closed and the book put aside, reflection reveals much to chew over, not least some provocative ideas about behavior and change.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.