May 2010

Adrienne So

fiction

The Heights by Peter Hedges

The Internet has introduced us to a new kind of mother. She's in her mid-thirties but could pass as a late twenty-something. Maybe she lives in DC's Mount Pleasant, or San Francisco's Nob Hill. She used to work as a corporate consultant, but now derives a pure and simple joy from pureeing her daughter's locally-sourced baby food herself and driving her sons to soccer practice in her Prius. She maintains a blog from which she gets plenty of free goodies from precious indie designers, as well as pulling in a side income from which she pays for Lululemon yoga pants, La Mer facial moisturizer and the occasional pair of Louboutins. 

These mothers -- we'll call them Blog Moms, or BMs -- bring out the worst in people, but that's OK, because they usually deserve it. Devoid of any outlet for their considerable energy and education, they spend most of their time shushing people who use curse words in neighborhood bars while their four-year-olds lick the floors, writing passionate articles about “the mommy wars” for Atlantic Monthly, and ostentatiously breast-feeding in crowded restaurants where I'm just trying to finish my tom kha gai without everything getting all National Geographic up in here.  

The reader can sense that Peter Hedges -- whose best-known novel is probably What's Eating Gilbert Grape -- was trying to challenge himself by seeing if he could make this foul creature sympathetic and understandable for those of us who aren't ourselves BMs. He succeeds, sort of.  

But our sympathies lie more with the grown-up Midwesterner Gilbert Grape, who has the name Tim Welch in The Heights. Tim is a short, shy, sensitive guy from Ohio, who had the enormous good luck -- in his eyes -- to marry the tall, beautiful Kate Oliver. Tim and Kate now live in a modest apartment in Brooklyn Heights, a good neighborhood with dizzyingly beautiful views of the Brooklyn Bridge, where everybody knows your name, et cetera.  

Tim and Kate, along with a few other secondary characters, take turns telling the story in their own voices. They wrestle with getting their two kids out the door and paying the bills on Tim's limited income as a high-school English teacher. They are both exhausted, but mostly happy, until a number of events coincide to throw their whole family into turmoil. First, a strikingly beautiful and wealthy woman named Anna Brody moves into the neighborhood with her husband and young daughter, and she (Anna, not her daughter) begins to exhibit a deep and somewhat unnerving interest in both Tim and Kate.  

Then Kate gets a new job, which necessitates Tim quitting his and staying at home to take care of the boys. Anna sets up play dates for the children, and soon Kate and Tim realize that Anna isn't exactly who she appears to be. While this is all happening, Kate's ex-boyfriend, the handsome drunkard Jeff Slade, reappears in Kate's life as a famous, successful television actor. He wants to take Kate out to dinner. You can see where this is going. 

It's to Hedges's credit that he kept me reading, through a plot that a kindergartner could see through -- if said kindergartner's BM wasn't busy banning books with kissing in them from the local library. Just as in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, where Hedges made me cry at the death of an enormously obese, loving mother, he also makes me sympathetic to the troubles of this young couple, making me feel empathy when all I really want to feel is pure envy.  

As is to be expected, Tim's voice is the most real and most sympathetic of the characters. Despite the fact that his transgression may be the worst one, his voice is sharp, funny and humble. Kate's voice is oddly less realized, and there are a few moments when she tumbles into lesbian territory through no fault of her own.  

I'm sorry, but no straight woman murmurs another straight woman's name to herself in a bemused daze, thinking of the color of the other woman's eyes, before distracting herself with thoughts of her husband. Anna Brody, Anna Brody, Anna Brody, Kate murmurs to herself, in a fine imitation of a seventh-grader writhing in the throes of her first crush. It's weird, and not intriguingly so -- just incongruously with the rest of the book. If Kate is a lesbian, fine, but don't taunt us with this tantalizing prospect before just flinging her into bed with more men.   

The only problem with the novel's conception is that Kate and Tim are perfect, and their lives are perfect. And I don't mean “perfect” in the Britney Spears, house-in-Malibu, crash-and-burn mode, but perfect in the ways that really matter. Hedges is incapable of creating a despicable character, no matter how hard he tries. Even Jeff Slade, who appears to be your typical slimy hunk, has carried a torch for Kate for years. This, despite having any groupie his heart desires. How can you hate him? That's so... sweet.   

Kate and Tim were lucky to find each other. They love each other, and their children, truly and deeply. Their kids go to good schools, and they hang out with other genuinely good families in their neighborhood -- not the repressed, catty housewives or child molesters that seem to populate all neighborhood parks in Tom Perrotta novels. Their home is small, but it's in one of the best parts of New York, in a neighborhood where they can pull their kids to school in a sleigh when it snows, and it's crammed full, as they say, of love.  

Before the arrival of Anna Brody, their problems were limited to melted bars of soap in the shower and the occasional unpaid bill. But I have the occasional unpaid bill, and I don't even have an apartment or kids yet! Everyone does! Get over yourselves! 

As cheesy as it is, it's fitting that the novel's denouement takes place at Disney World, since Hedges is, himself, in the business of creating latter-day fairy tales. Like in most fairy tales, the characters start off happy until some wicked desire -- for a Fortuny gown, to relive the past, to experience excitement -- leads them astray. They pass through travails, but neither they, nor we, have a moment's doubt that they will eventually come through to the other side, a little wiser but mostly, none the worse for wear. 

That makes The Heights perfect beach reading, for fans of romance novels, soap opera dramas, and the rest of us who are unable to deal with the pressure of not knowing how a story is going to end before we start it. But if you see a BM on a towel, slathering organic sunscreen on her infant and trying to persuade her toddler to eat iced carrots, do me a favor and throw your copy at her.

The Heights by Peter Hedges
Dutton
ISBN: 052595113X
304 Pages