Monday, April 25, 2011

Admiring the view from Hedges' 'The Heights'

Originally printed April 15, 2010.

It's always a little dangerous to mention the end of the book in a review. After all, neither the author, nor the publicist, nor the reader wants a reviewer to give away any major plot points that aren't already summarized on the book jacket.

But I think it's safe to point out that the ending of "The Heights" is the only time when novelist Peter Hedges seems afraid to look his characters in the eye. For the rest of the 300-page book, it's readily apparent that Hedges is a well-practiced novelist (author of "An Ocean in Iowa" and "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") who understands the cinematic aesthetic. After all, he not only wrote the screenplay for "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," but his screenplay for "About a Boy" (an adaptation of a Nick Hornsby novel) was nominated for an Oscar and he is the writer-director of "Pieces of April" and "Dan in Real Life."

In "The Heights," Hedges tells the story of a married couple, Tim Welsh and Kate Oliver, who make less money than their neighbors in Brooklyn Heights, who enjoy taking turns caring for their two young boys and who are coming to terms with the limitations and loss of their failed dreams. It's the kind of book that could easily be adapted into the indie sitcom successful formula of "Little Miss Sunshine" or Hedges' own "Dan in Real Life."

The short chapters and dueling perspectives from Tim and Kate -- with a few other characters thrown in -- sweep readers quickly into the hopeful, yearning but flawed and self-centered family dynamics that Hedges thrives on. Tim and Kate boldly report on their own shortcomings -- as well as kvetch about each other's flaws.

Tim is a smart -- but eccentric -- popular history teacher at an exclusive private school. He's comfortable in his marriage and family life, but he never quite understands how he managed to marry the stunningly beautiful, humanitarian-minded Kate -- especially when he remembers the long list of more handsome and better accomplished former beaus who attended the wedding and who call periodically.

Kate, who is a super-mom capable of pulling down a well-paying job in the nonprofit sector during a down-turned economy, fully understands that Tim's strengths also are his weakness. Even when she is wooed by her former beau -- a financially successful but utterly untalented TV actor -- or she develops a crush on the fabulously rich new mother in the neighborhood, Kate manages to look straight ahead and avoids lying to herself, to the readers or, eventually, to her husband.

There's no perfection to be had in a Hedges novel or screenplay. The engaging and likeable characters are made all the more engaging and likeable because they don't try to hide their flaws -- and because they continue to struggle and to make massive mistakes even though they never forget why they fell in love in the first place.

And during the last third of the novel, Hedges masters the pacing so well that it's hard to put the book down. That is, until the final chapter, when it seems that Hedges couldn't figure out how to end the novel and instead asks one of the minor characters do it for him.

It makes me eager to see how Hedges winds up fixing that final flaw in the screenplay adaptation of this very cinematic novel.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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