We’ve come to the end of The Heights and there is so much to discuss. I gobbled up the conclusion for the drama and storytelling, but also for the way Hedges plays with some big and thought-provoking themes.
Hedges lays out many of his most important ideas at the start of the section. Tim tells the committee at his dissertation defense that history is “an endless succession of mostly minor moments…and intention was all that could be controlled.” Do you believe this is true? Tim himself doesn’t seem to follow this philosophy until after his night at the hotel. Before this, he is a man driven by his desires and impulses. After his funny, though very human, ordeal spent waiting for Anna, he emerges a changed man with a renewed clarity. (I have a feeling Hedges is up to something bigger here. I know he was referencing another famous episode of a man who stays up all night confronting his inner demons, but other than The Bible, I can’t put my finger on one particular book. Please let me know if you recognize it.) Tellingly, Tim takes the pseudonym Trammel: something that hinders activity. And his decision to spend the night with Anna puts a block on his life with Kate. But when he leaves the hotel and sheds his old persona, he becomes a man of action and begins to follow his own dictum—intention is what counts. He returns to his Brooklyn apartment, sees the family’s toothbrushes in their holders, and starts to fix the broken cabinet. In his own words, he had “dodged a big, fat bullet” and is now literally ready to put his house in order.
Kate also undergoes a transformative weekend, but hers is definitely less positive. She goes from enchantment to disillusion. When she and the boys arrive at Disney World, she is treated like a princess and her cynicism melts away (who wouldn’t be charmed by VIP access to all those rides?). As if there was any doubt as to what Hedges is up to, he has Kate scream at the sight of Cinderella’s castle. She and the kids are fully seduced by Jeff and his new do-gooder personality. It took me a few minutes to get over my incredulity that Kate would fall for Jeff’s story about having a fiancée. But after his true manipulative nature is revealed, I have come to think that maybe Kate’s naïveté is the point—only someone who wants to be tricked could believe such an improbable scenario. Still, the revelation that Jeff never had a full speech and that his performance was staged came as a bit of a shock to me. (Did you think Jeff was a phony? Did you see this coming?)
After Jeff is unmasked, Kate spends the remainder of the trip trying to focus on what is “real.” She takes the boys to Animal Kingdom to see live giraffes and elephants; insists they wait in lines like noncelebrities; and points out the false facades of the theme park. Yet, I’m not sure about the point she is trying to make; when her son cries, “But Mommy, Dumbo is real,” I couldn’t help but sympathize. To a child, those characters are as real as any animal they might see in the zoo. Kate doesn’t ever explain what she wants them to learn from the experience. More strikingly, Kate doesn’t buy into the idea of being “real” herself. “I decided not to tell [Tim] what I’d done with Jeff. This was a go-to-the-grave secret,” she says. When she does tell him, we can infer from the end of the book that her life changes radically.
There are so many great details in this last section I wish there was more time to discuss them. What parts did you like best? Among my favorites: Tim wandering Greenwich Street looking for the hotel with an overpacked bag that “gave the impression that I was a man who was never coming back”; his well-researched inventory of sexual positions; Bea’s prim description of Anna and Philip’s fight (“I was smack in the middle of something tawdry,” italics mine); Jeff’s fart after he and Kate make love (she seems to have a thing for men who are full of gas); and, finally, Bea’s confession at the end of the book that she sees Tim “in a new way. Or maybe he was just always small and I never noticed.”
I realize I haven’t even touched on Anna, who is worthy of a whole post herself. In spite of her hold on Tim, her power seemed diminished in the second half of the book. It’s interesting that when Philip discovers her planned infidelity and promises to give up his mistress she cries “At last!” Was Anna’s entire foray to Brooklyn Heights just an effort to get her husband’s attention? As reader Kirstin Fields pointed out, we also haven’t discussed Tim’s relationship with his father—more intriguing than ever, given recent events in the news.
And then we come to the end: Kate has moved out of the Heights and is living in Carroll Gardens (a couple of steps down in the snobby New York City real estate hierarchy). Our last sight is of Tim and Kate holding hands in the park, changed but still together. I am a sucker for a happy ending, so I found this very satisfying. Do you consider this a happy ending?
I had a great time leading the book club discussion this month, with all your comments and insights. Peter Hedges, the author of The Heights, has agreed to answer our questions about the book. Please post any you may have below by Monday, November 28. For a start, I’d like to ask him: Did you always intend to have Bea narrate the final chapter of the book? Did you purposely keep the details of Anna’s past vague so that readers could project their own ideas on her? Did you find yourself favoring one character over another—do you like Tim more than Kate (or vise versa)?
Thank you again for a great month. I look forward to reading your comments on this final part of the book. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving: I hope it is filled with many delicious dishes, good friends, and close family.