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Peter Hedges
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The Heights

Peter Hedges

(Plume; US: Mar 2011)

You might not know who Peter Hedges is as a novelist, but you’ve probably seen his work on the big screen. His novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was turned into a movie (Hedges also penned the screenplay), and he co-wrote the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy and received an Academy Award nomination in the process. He’s also the writer-director of the movies Dan in Real Life and Pieces of April.


His latest novel, The Heights is destined for the silver screen as well, for Focus Features has signed on Hedges to write, produce and direct a film version. Clearly, Hedges is a man of many, many talents.


In its current form, I’m not sure how well The Heights, which was originally published in hardcover last year and is now available as a trade paperback, will translate as a moving picture. The book is rife with passages that riff on anal fixations, and the turning point of the novel involves an explicit sex scene – albeit one with the lights off, so maybe on celluloid it might not be so in-your-face with its references to one guy’s attempts to force an ejaculation if the scene is kept in the dark.


However, if some of these more risqué passages are muted for the screen, The Heights might pass as a quirky indie dramedy. There’s also a certain propulsion to this novel that might make it a quick and nimble little film. I guess you can only know for sure once the adaptation actually bows in theatres but, until then, The Heights exists in its own right as a novel that is alternately bittersweet and, at times, actually quite amusing.


The story centres on Tim and Kate, a married couple in their 30s who live in a section of Brooklyn with their two young sons, aged two and four, and is told from their own point-of-view in alternating chapters (with some minor characters piping up with their own take on the tale every now and then with short sections of their own). Tim works as a history teacher at a posh prep school on a meagre paycheque, and Kate is a stay-at-home mom who dotes on her sons. Tim and Kate have their difficulties – their brownstone apartment is quite cramped for four people and they have trouble paying the bills – but, overall, they seem to be quite content in their plain vanilla domestic life, and their nine-year marriage seems to be strong and sturdy.


Into this picture, however, comes a new neighbour named Anna Brody, who is wealthy and beautiful, and has a daughter and husband of her own. With her arrival, things in Tim and Kate’s household turn upside down, which is further complicated when Kate’s ex-flame, now a successful TV actor, arrives on the scene, as well. You can probably guess where things go from there. Yes, The Heights is a novel about infidelities, and the tantalizing promise of what possibilities one could have outside of the constraints of a long-term, committed relationship.


Hedges’ take on this subject is a fairly humorous one, and is peppered with witticisms such as the fact that if a member of the opposite sex doesn’t pat you on the back when you embrace in a seemingly platonic hug, you’re not going to get around the bases with said person. It’s a bit of a risky, bold move to take – making light of the subject of marital breakdowns – but Hedges has a deft pen, and a keen sense of observation about what really makes couples tick. It helps, too, that even though Tim and Kate are a bit down and out, financially speaking, they sparkle as characters, and you get a sense that, in their own ways, they are committed to both one another and their young family.


Tim is also a bit on the nerdy side, and seemingly out of his league when dealing with women, which makes him all the more likable. Kate, on the other hand, is aptly portrayed as the true head of the household. She seems real and believable as she’s torn between decisions such as what to do about her ex-lover and the push and pull between raising a family and taking a plum job to help pay the expenses. All in all, The Heights is populated with believable, honest, real characters that you care about.


All with the exception of one.


Where The Heights falls a bit flat is in the development of Anna Brody as a character. Brody is a puzzle, an enigma that you can’t quite figure out, which might be part of the point and might be meant to give her a certain allure. She feels written to be much older than she really is for some reason, as she’s quite posh and elegant.


Almost immediately from her arrival in the section of Brooklyn Heights populated by Tim and Kate, she hones in on the couple – seemingly for no reason at all. And the other characters fall for her, with little to establish what they find so attractive about her. In fact, after only a couple of chance meetings, Kate tells a crowded dinner party that she’s Anna’s best friend, which feels odd and rings hollow. How can she be compelled to say such a thing when she barely knows Anna?


Anna, on the other hand, starts to intrude more and more on the lives of Tim and Kate for little reason at all, by inviting them into her cozy inner circle of socialites and, in one case, loaning Kate her wedding dress by a chic fashion designer to wear at a social gathering she has invited Tim and her to. It just seems to really feel false, and the reader has no clue as to why Anna is going to such lengths to suck up to Kate – especially when it seems, at least early on, that she has no interest in Tim.


However, despite this, The Heights is a breeze of a read that moves along quicker and quicker – as the chapters get shorter and shorter. Reading the book is akin to watching a bad car wreck about to happen, as bad luck and poor judgment begins to cloud the motivations behind characters that you’ll generally end up rooting for, regardless of their situation. By injecting humor into what’s a pretty serious situation, The Heights becomes a compelling read, one without a great deal of sentimentality.


The novel is also about not wanting to become your parents, and make the same mistakes that they have made throughout the course of their tumultuous marriages – but you might just anyway, given the tenuous state of human nature. The Heights ends up being a colourful, page-turning novel with a great deal of force and drive, and plenty of amusing moments – even if a few of them are about particularly naughty pleasures.


It’ll be interesting to see where Hedges goes with this in his screenplay, because The Heights is by no means sappy, even if the climax winds up at Disney World. That’s a hard sell, perhaps, in the world of Hollywood movie making. Still, don’t wait until The Heights reaches your multiplex. This is a fine novel full of nuances and generally rich details of how one can feel trapped inside a long-term relationship, and the price one may pay in any attempt to get out of the marriage contract.


It may not be a perfect novel, but there’s the irony: this is a story about imperfect relationships – no matter how glossy and fairy tale they may appear on the outside. You’ll come to fall in love with The Heights, and appreciate its message. The only thing left for Hedges to do is translate it, perhaps with a shade or two more character development and motivation, for the popcorn munching crowd.

Rating:

Zachary Houle is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction, and the recipient of a writing arts grant from the City of Ottawa. He has had journalism published in SPIN magazine, The National Post (Canada), Canadian Business, OttawaShowbox.com and more. He also reviews books for bookwookie.ca.


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