Book review: The Heights

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | MARCH 11, 2010 7:30 AM

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The great force of the universe, change, dictates whether humans succeed or fail, based on their ability to adapt. Changes from the cosmic to the mundane can come at any moment and alter the landscape of being.

Major life changes have any number of root causes. Sometimes it’s disaster. Other times, it’s just new neighbors.

Average is the only word that can define Tim and Kate Welch, the main characters in Peter Hedges’ latest novel, The Heights. Wife, husband, two kids, a small apartment they can barely afford — all the trappings of the modern nuclear family delineate their existence. The thing is, they’re happy with it.

Tim is married to the woman of his dreams, and Kate, who previously led a rough and complicated life, revels in the simplicity of it all.

Kate, who begins the novel as a stay-at-home mother, has a set circle of friends and way of doing things. Tim doesn’t seem to have many friends but is happy existing in the realm of his family.

Change comes for them in the form of Anna Brody, who moves to Brooklyn Heights with her husband, a richer than rich businessman.

Kate and Tim are both entranced by everything about Anna. For Tim, this soon develops into sexual fascination. And then, a successful ex-lover of Kate’s enters the picture, causing her to wonder if she chose the right man.

To say that the characters are average is not a slight, nor a hint that they are boring. Far from it. Tim and Kate are so enthused about their lives that, ordinary as they may be, they are special.

At the beginning, Kate and Tim don’t clamor for anything more because they don’t need anything more. Only when they begin to question this do they get into trouble. It’s hard not to wonder why they would want anything more than the beautiful life they have. Hedges’ gift in making these people seem extraordinary in their ordinariness makes The Heights’ character-driven story great.

Language is Hedges’ true delight in The Heights, but not in the heady, overwrought way it often is for novelists. The story is told mainly from the perspectives of Tim and Kate, with other characters having their say at the appropriate moments. As such, the language of the novel is the language of the characters.

Hedges’ work shines because the novelist-as-narrator steps away, letting the stories of the characters converse with one another seemingly without authorial oversight. As the book progresses, the reader discovers every idiosyncrasy of the Welches, not of the man who penned them. The result is wonderful, refreshing prose that engages the reader on a personal level. The Heights seems not so much a book but a conversation with dear friends.

The Heights is far from a mystery novel, but it deserves the praise often reserved for a great crime story: It’s a page-turner. There is a flow to the story that adds a certain urgency to the proceedings.

When it seems like everything is going perfectly for Kate and Tim, a sudden jolt throws everything off balance, and when life is at its bleakest, a moment of intense hope appears. At times, it seems almost cruel to the characters — and the reader — to put the book down and leave their lives and stories dangling in the air.

While reading The Heights, one will wonder about, question, cheer for, and jeer the decisions Tim and Kate make in adapting to their suddenly shifting lives. Above all, though, the reader will be entertained and delighted, right down to the very last page. The Heights is not to be passed up.

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