I was very much looking forward to two recent novels. Both are love stories, but unconventional ones. I enjoyed them, and read them cover to cover – generally, I allow myself to stop reading, watching or listening to whatever it is I’m not enjoying, so that I wanted to know how the stories ended is a compliment to the writers. But I was disappointed in the novels, ultimately. In both instances, I felt a little robbed of emotional impact.
Perhaps, given their protagonists, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the cerebral aspects of the books would outweigh, even quash, the heart-rending effects. Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin (Pantheon Books, 2021) is about an uber-accomplished, hyper-intelligent professor who is struck by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson (Other Press, 2020) is about two real-life cultural icons who were in the same social circles as people the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Salvador Dalí.
Love faces adversity
Within the first 20 pages of Morningside Heights, I didn’t particularly like either Prof. Spence Robin or his wife, Pru. He is an all-star academic, winning awards and grants of all sorts; he has ambition and has achieved some power in his world, and carries himself as such. He is Jewish but changed his name early in life, “to escape the Lower East Side.” He is Pru’s teacher, though only six years her senior, and downplays her concerns of being seen on campus as just his girlfriend, not as a person in her own right. And it is only after he semi-proposes that he tells her he has a sister with brain damage, who he visits rarely, and that he’d been married before and has an estranged son from that marriage.
For her part, Pru lets Spence get away with all these things. Worse, she abandons her own beliefs and dreams, basically, to be with him. For example, she keeps kosher before she meets him and in their early days together, but lets that go by the wayside. She has her own promising career that she gives up because her own areas of interest overlap with his award-winning expertise. He lets her become his shadow. He lets her main purpose become supporting him, while not reciprocating or appreciating that support at all, it seems.
So, it’s hard to empathize with the individual characters when their lives are completely upturned by Spence’s Alzheimer’s, which begins to affect him in his late 50s. That said, one doesn’t wish ill on anyone. The challenges both Spence and Pru face are severe, and Henkin brilliantly communicates the difficulties on both sides. Spence’s confusions and his not being able to understand fully the state he’s in are as heart-wrenching as his strong will and refusal to step down from work or admit his frailties are frustrating. Pru’s sadness at the loss of her partner and the heavy responsibilities of caring for him are palpable.
Perhaps the weight of these feelings and circumstances is part of what inspired Henkin to give – in my opinion – too much ink to Spence’s troubled son. Spence and Pru’s daughter Sarah doesn’t figure as prominently, but a lot of time is spent on Arlo and, in some respects, Arlo allows readers to get to know more about Spence. But those story threads interrupted, for me, the potential intensity of the Spence-Pru storyline, which, I have to admit, was both a relief and a letdown. I wasn’t surprised that Henkin has personal experience with dementia. In an online interview with the publication Shelf Awareness, he shares, “Although much of Morningside Heights is invented, it is, in many ways, my most autobiographical novel to date. My father, like Spence, was a professor at Columbia who developed Alzheimer’s, though my father developed it much later in life than Spence did. In writing about the ways Pru lost Spence, I was re-experiencing my mother’s loss, and my brothers’ and my loss.”
The rawness of that real pain is tempered in the novel, perhaps out of personal necessity. And perhaps most readers will appreciate that emotional distance, but I was hoping for a more intimate portrayal.
Not-so secret love
Never Anyone But You also lacks intimacy, even though it is about Suzanne Malherbe and Lucie Schwob, who fall in love and become both personal and professional partners. Thomson writes about the real-life French artists in a somewhat didactic and distanced way. He has done all his research but never fully inhabits or gives full life to his characters, who must have been quite passionate and committed people to have accomplished what they did under the circumstances in which they did it.
The women knew each other from childhood but end up becoming stepsisters when Lucie’s father (who was Jewish) connects with and eventually marries Suzanne’s mother (who was Catholic). Suzanne is immediately captivated by Lucie when they meet more formally; Suzanne is almost 17 years old and Lucie a couple years older than that. Never Anyone But You is told from the perspective of Suzanne.
Early on, the two decide to collaborate – Lucie’s words and Suzanne’s drawings. Lucie transforms herself into Claude Cahun before Suzanne reinvents herself as Marcel Moore. But the new persona cannot heal Claude’s bouts of depression and, throughout her life, she struggled to stay alive.
Claude and Marcel were unofficially (because they weren’t men) part of the Surrealist scene in 1920s Paris but their artistic (notably, photographic) success was tempered by the Second World War. They leave Paris in the late 1930s and take refuge in Jersey, where they use their talents to unsettle and educate the Nazi soldiers who occupied the island from 1940. It was their hope that their leaflets would demoralize the soldiers, and even cause some of them to desert. Marcel was fluent in German, so they could make the subversive material appear as if it were coming from one of the soldiers. Eventually, the two would be discovered and arrested. Though they would suffer imprisonment, they survived the war.
The bravery of Claude and Marcel is remarkable, as is their dedication to each other, though Claude is depicted as being unlikeable at times, between her mental health issues and her being more fluid with her sexuality than Marcel, ie. she had other relationships. Nonetheless, for Marcel, there was never anyone but Claude, though it is difficult to see why there was such devotion and loyalty on her side, and Thomson’s novel doesn’t answer that question. Ultimately, the two were together for more than 40 years, until Claude’s death in 1954, so there was, I guess, really never anyone but Marcel for Claude, either.