The Heavensby Sandra Newman
A work of rare literary brilliance and emotional power, The Heavens is a mesmerizing novel of love and dreams that moves between a reimagined New York City and Elizabethan England and asks how our world comes to be.
A work of rare literary brilliance and emotional power, The Heavens is a mesmerizing novel of love and dreams that moves between a reimagined New York City and Elizabethan England and asks how our world comes to be.
New York, late summer, 2000. A party in a spacious Manhattan apartment, hosted by a wealthy young activist. Dozens of idealistic twenty-somethings have impassioned conversations over takeout dumplings and champagne. The evening shines with the heady optimism of a progressive new millennium. A young man, Ben, meets a young woman, Kate—and they begin to fall in love.
Kate lives with her head in the clouds, so at first Ben isn’t that concerned when she tells him about the recurring dream she’s had since childhood. In the dream, she’s transported to the past, where she lives a second life as Emilia, the mistress of a nobleman in Elizabethan England. But for Kate, the dream becomes increasingly real, to the point where it threatens to overwhelm her life. And soon she’s waking from it to find the world changed—pictures on her wall she doesn’t recognize, new buildings in the neighborhood that have sprung up overnight. As Kate tries to make sense of what’s happening, Ben worries the woman he’s fallen in love with is losing her grip on reality.
Both intoxicating and thought-provoking, The Heavens is a powerful reminder of the consequences of our actions, a poignant testament to how the people we love are destined to change, and a masterful exploration of the power of dreams.
Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, Literary Hub, Electric Lit, Kirkus Reviews, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Tor.com
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice
“From Orlando to Outlander, the riddles of consciousness and time have preoccupied storytellers for centuries and now sit at the heart of Sandra Newman’s heady and elegant fourth novel, The Heavens. The Heavens is something of a chameleon, a strange and beautiful hybrid . . . Newman’s self-assured prose [is] at once disciplined and sensuous . . . I woke from The Heavens as I hope to emerge from any work of fiction: moved and unsettled, a new and intoxicating set of questions alight on the mind’s horizon.”—Laura Van Den Berg, New York Times Book Review
“In The Heavens, Newman takes on time travel, 9/11, Shakespeare, mental illness, and the end of the world through the experiences of a young couple . . . Her characters may not save the world (spoiler alert!) but they experience love, community, and meaning—even joy.”—Kate Tuttle, Boston Globe
“Special books are Sandra Newman’s specialty, and The Heavens is no exception . . . If you decide to delve into it, Newman will take you on quite a ride through her vivid imagination.”—Lynn Neary, NPR (“Weekend Edition”)
“A work of remarkable skill and invention, linguistic brio and righteous political intent, and one which gleefully defies categorization . . . At all times one is conscious of a strong guiding intelligence at work: of Newman’s profound concern for the world, for its politics, its threatened places—and above all for the humans bustling about, often hopelessly, in a pained confusion of love . . . A truly astonishing work, capable of eliciting from even the most jaded reader both a kind of startled surprise and an unqualified admiration.”—Sarah Perry, Spectator
“We’re in New York in the summer of 2000, at a spacious apartment where a gorgeous young couple fall in love. But both harbor secrets, and one seems to be losing her grip on reality.”—Entertainment Weekly
“There are some writers whose prose is nothing short of electrifying: it pings and crackles off the page . . . In her fourth novel, The Heavens, Newman’s sparky sensibility is given the grandest of backdrops . . . Newman’s genius lies in balancing these timelines and world so finely that the whole thing is seamless—not to mention lots of fun. The narrative darts around deftly and the bursts of archaic language are playful and tender . . . The novel is a study of creativity—its importance and worth, but also how it separates creators from their loved ones.”—Emma Jane Unsworth, Guardian
“Throughout Sandra Newman’s new novel, there is an exquisitely calibrated strangeness . . . Newman has business elsewhere, but if she treats Tudor England like she owns the place, it’s because she evidently does. She is simply unerring, deeply read and possessed of a phenomenal ear for diction . . . The calamities of our age, in this novel, are also an intricate drama of moral philosophy. Like all dramas, it has a resolution, and one of such eye-popping metaphysical grandeur that I couldn’t spoil it even if I wanted to.”—Paraic O’Donnell, Irish Times
“Something rich and strange: a book that runs through many scarcely believable and yet, in any given moment, entirely plausible iterations . . . The novel ably explores humanitarianism and environmental concerns, modern ideas of family, communal living, surrogacy and loss . . . Newman’s shifting landscapes are thrilling, her changing registers subtle but acute, from the clipped, cultivated language of the Elizabethan court, to the witty, wise-cracking dialogue of 21st-century New Yorkers . . . A metaphorical end-of-the-world set-up as beguiling as it is bleak.”—Catherine Taylor, New Statesman
“A novel unlike any other . . . Magical.”—Elle (UK)
“Intriguing . . . A daring piece of counter-historical speculative romance involving Shakespeare and time travel . . . The surreal comic tone has a lot in common with Elif Batuman, Patrick deWitt, and Ottessa Moshfegh.”—Joanna Thomas-Corr, Times (UK)
“An indictment of history’s Great Men.”—Stephanie Sy-Quia, Times Literary Supplement
“Remember that house party in your early 20s where you met someone so interesting that you wanted to keep talking to them all night? Reading a Sandra Newman novel feels like that, and it’s actually how The Heavens begins . . . This weird, addicting, masterful novel should catapult her to further fame.”—AV Club
“An intricate, multi-layered narrative full of twists . . . An expertly crafted novel, full of distorting mirrors, trap doors, and rugs that are pulled from under you constantly. Being so wrong-footed so often is a joy . . . A bold and enthralling fever-dream of a book which skillfully explores the divide between method and madness.”—The National
“A fast-paced, quick read . . . Newman’s sophisticated language vividly draws worlds for her characters to inhabit, and the dialogue wizardry in her last book is put in play again in the sections of The Heavens set in the 16th century . . . A mélange of speculative and historical fiction topped with a love story.”—Winnipeg Free Press
“Sandra Newman’s new novel, The Heavens, takes place in a New York City that could almost be our own, that might have been our own, were it not for one fateful step at some point in the past. The whimsical and audacious Kate, a Hungarian-Turkish-Persian woman who sleeps on a friend’s rooftop, believes that she’s the one to recognize that misstep—and correct it. She just might be able to do it, because when she falls asleep, she awakens in Elizabethan times. Or at least she believes she does . . . A compelling and complex critique of our current times.”—amNewYork
“How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations. Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is one such title. It’s a fantasy about reality and it’s one of the best new novels I’ve read in ages . . . The first days of Ben and Kate’s courtship are dreamlike in their happiness; the later days are heartbreaking. Newman writes happy and sad equally well, and her plot never overwhelms its characters . . . Her imaginative range staggers . . . I will be telling everyone I know about this novel.”—Matthew Keeley, Tor.com
“We’re introduced to a world that feels like first love, as hopeful and beautiful. Unsurprisingly, and just like in a love affair, in a plot halfway between science fiction and magical realism, things quickly begin to go wrong. Every one of The Heavens’s pages feels like that first shuddering spark of attraction—the potential for great joy, and terrible pain. The Heavens gives us both.”—Dazed
“Newman executes her high concept with formal mastery . . . A daring and brilliant piece of speculative literary fiction, and a thoughtful, timely, and unnerving meditation on what it means to hope against hope. ”—Fiction Unbound
“[A] changeling of a novel.”—The Masters Review
“Stunning . . . Newman’s linguistic richness expertly renders Kate’s American and Elizabethan worlds . . . There are nods to Ursula Le Guin’s 1971 novel, The Lathe of Heaven, but Newman is decidedly her own voice.”—Canberra Times
“In Newman’s stellar novel, a woman’s ability to travel back in time in dreams—specifically, to 16th-century Britain—morphs into a world-altering liability. Kate, an art school dropout living in Brooklyn in 2000, has since childhood entered alternate worlds as she sleeps; but the dreams shift and intensify when, in her 20s, she meets and begins dating Ben, a grounded PhD student. . . . Newman’s novel expertly marries historical and contemporary, plumbing the rich, all-too-human depths of present-day New York and early modern England, and racing toward a well-executed peak. But it’s the evolution of Kate and Ben’s relationship that serves as the book’s emotional anchor, making for a fantastic, ingenious novel.”—Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)
“Newman is known for her bold imagination, and this kaleidoscopic novel is no exception. Like an apocalyptically tinged version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Kate and Ben’s love story encompasses difficult questions: What is mental illness? Can art, or love, have power? Is humanity doomed? And if it is, then how do we create a life with meaning? . . . Newman’s sentences, like the embroidery Kate practices, pull the story along with their intricate beauty. A complex, unmissable work from a writer who deserves wide acclaim.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Newman neatly manages the uneasy feat of pulling off a historical novel featuring both William Shakespeare and Alexander the Great, foreshadowing the action with philosophical musings on the butterfly effect and the Great Man theory of history. A thought-provoking, head-spinning fever dream of a novel; highly recommended.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“In this tender love story, Newman ponders the impact of individual action on the world as she creates alternative universes, realities, even endings . . . Provocative.”—Booklist
“Beautifully written and thought-provoking . . . Sandra Newman has a genuine sensitivity for language . . . The kind of novel that almost demands multiple readings, and certainly merits intense discussion.”—Bookbrowse
“Smart and terrifying and delicious literary storytelling.”—Literary Hub
“I was bewitched by the ambition and charge of Sandra Newman’s time-slip narrative, which is at once troubling and beautiful, emotionally resonant and fantastically strange.”—Olivia Laing, author of Crudo
“What a wonderful, strange, terrifying, brilliant novel this is.”—Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire
“Reading Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is like falling up a brilliant flight of stairs. Inventive and moving and surprising on every level, it’s a novel that doesn’t just play with time and history and certainty: it turns those things inside out. I’ve been haunted by its characters and ideas ever since I reluctantly finished it.”—Elizabeth McCracken, author of Thunderstruck & Other Stories and Bowlaway
“An elegant and untamed novel that illuminates the soft edges between love, madness, idealism, and the narrative power of the unconscious mind.”—Catherine Lacey, author of The Answers and Certain American States
“Unique and brilliant, I tore through The Heavens and I loved it. It is a house made of trapdoors, where dreams are real and reality a dream. Through this strange labyrinth of 21st century New York and Renaissance England, it is love which deftly, movingly, finds the way.”—Adam Foulds, author of The Quickening Maze
“The Heavens, shifting restlessly between worlds, gently encouraging Elizabethan England into eccentric New York, rolling everything into a dreamy, desperate new reality, is everything we expect from Sandra Newman. It’s strange but focused, beautifully written and put together, dangerously benign, comic and clever, bright as a knife.”—M. John Harrison, author of Light and You Should Come with Me Now
“The Heavens is absolutely brilliant. Elegant, thought-provoking, clever. A perfect example of how a fantasy premise can become a complex, multi-faceted metaphor for being human and loving and afraid.”—Bridget Collins, author of The Binding
“This is a brilliant book. It plays with you the way you, an ardent reader, like to be played with. The back and forth of time and settings, the increasing hold of the Elizabethan reality on ‘this’ reality, makes for a mesmerizing read.”—Rick Simonson, Elliott Bay Book Company
“The Heavens is, frankly, perfect. It opens with an immediately irresistible love story; the writing is clever and surprising but has the simple ring of truth; the story builds with a dawning sense of both hope and dread; and then it releases the reader into a changed reality. I’m recommending it to everyone.”—Christie Olson Day, Gallery Bookshop
“The Heavens will sneak up and surprise you. Animating dreams in fiction seems so difficult, and risky. They usually feel clumsily inserted into a book to explain a character’s inner life. Sandra Newman’s smarter than that, and instead writes an enchanting split narrative, toggling between reality and a very compelling dream world. The sense of place and time, in both settings, is scarily vivid, and fans of The Country of Ice Cream Star will be happy to learn she’s still an expert at inventing the kind of language (here a sort of Elizabethan dream-speech) needed to tell her story.”—John Francisconi, Bank Square Books
Longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Folio Prize
Washington Post Notable Fiction Books of the Year
NPR Best Books of the Year
“The latest novel to imagine the Earth undone by illness is Sandra Newman’s epic, The Country of Ice Cream Star. And it is an epic, with all that connotes: It’s a big, sweeping saga set in Western Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., with ferocious battles, a desperate romance and an against-all-odds quest for a cure . . . what makes the novel so fascinating—and, yes, so challenging—is the language Newman has created for Ice Cream and the way we see this disease-ravaged world through her eyes . . . I worried about Ice Cream, and I rooted for Ice Cream. And when I was done with her story, I was very glad that I had gotten my flu shot.”—Washington Post
“The Country of Ice Cream Star is in many ways a classic story, craftily refold and made contemporary . . . [It] builds towards a powerful, horrifying, and beautifully-written climax, one that’s epic in scope but also feels intensely personal.”—New York Times Book Review
“This remains one of the most beautiful books I have read this year—the one I champion everywhere. It’s a challenging book . . . and is written completely in a debased (but inarguably beautified) version of English, developed among isolated knots of survivors. Newman’s voice is powerful, and her protagonist, Ice Cream Star, would make the perfect YA heroine if not for the fact that she is 10 times the heroine in any of the tales whose bones this one steals.”—NPR Books, Best Books of 2015
“The central reason I believe this text is so striking is its use of language . . . The Country of Ice Cream Star should join A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker on the relatively short list of future fictions that interrogate the value of the vernacular in creating a believable yet challenging image of our possible future . . . what is truly inspiring is the interior meditations of the protagonist, Ice Cream. Set against the other contemporary female protagonists in postapocalyptic literature, Ice Cream is a welcome change. She is strong when she needs to be, weak when no one is looking, quick on her feet, and in love with two very different men. She seems a lot like Katniss Everdeen at first, but she is much more honest with her emotions and her descriptions of these emotion . . . an intimate, provocative, and beautiful story about the end of our world.”—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Dystopian science fiction is everywhere. So what sets apart this haunting and heartbreaking novel, about a young girl who survives a plague that wipes out most of the population? Both the author and her heroine are total badasses; the prose and the young girl are unrelenting in their purpose . . . Reminiscent of Hunger Games and José Saramago’s Blindness and McCarthy’s The Road, this is an epic about love and hope that will inspire—and probably be screening at a movie theater near you in the next few years.”—Vanity Fair
“The future evoked in The Country of Ice Cream Star, the resonant epic by Sandra Newman, is one you would not wish on your worst enemy . . . the mythology and propaganda of warring factions; a tomboy protagonist with romantic dilemmas; ruined cityscapes; graphic violence . . . What sets [it] apart from its rivals is the extraordinary, blistering insistence of its language . . . As the momentum builds, scene by assured scene, a raw, addictive lyricism develops . . . Time and again I found myself surprised into revisiting a sentence or exchange of dialogue—first to grasp it thoroughly, and then to delight in it again. While the glittering linguistic shackles slow the reading process, the narrative still manages to unfold at rampaging speed . . . By the last page I was emotionally battered but euphoric: the book had held me so effectively hostage that I felt I had Stockholm syndrome . . . potent, stimulating and cathartic.”—Guardian
“What an astonishing achievement . . . I can’t remember when I last read something so original or sophisticated or emotionally engaging or so breathtakingly ambitious.”—Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life
“Wonderfully inventive, The Country of Ice Cream Star pulls you into a world of betrayal, loyalty, desire and war. Ice Cream Star is a glorious, flawed heroine, and Newman’s writing about sexuality—its threat, and its power—is astonishing.”—Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire
Ben met Kate at a rich girl’s party. He didn’t know the rich girl personally; it was one of those parties where no one knew the hostess. He’d come with the rich girl’s cousin’s co-worker, whom he instantly lost in the crowd. It had started out as a dinner party, but the invitations proliferated, spreading epidemically through friends of friends until it turned into a hundred people. So the rich girl opened up both floors, made punch instead of risotto, and ordered a thousand dumplings from a Chinese restaurant. It was August and you had to let things happen the way they wanted to happen. Everyone was in their twenties then, anyway, so that was how they thought.
It turned out to be a mostly francophone party, conversational and quiet; a party with the windows open to the night, a party where people sat talking on the floor. Most of the illumination was from solar-powered tea lights, which the rich girl had hung on the fire escapes all day to charge, then pasted along the walls. That light reflected softly from the heavy glass tumblers into which wine was poured. There wasn’t even music playing. The rich girl said it gave her bad dreams. New York City, so everyone was interning at a Condé Nast publication or a television program or the UN. Everyone a little in love with each other; the year 2000 in the affluent West.
1. The Heavens is a genre-bending novel that begins in an alternate version of the year 2000 where there is peace in the Middle East and the president is a woman; it then moves back to sixteenth-century England. Consider how the dual timelines affect your reading and connection to the characters. Why do you think the author chose sixteenth-century England for Kate’s adventures in the past? Why do you think the author uses dreams to transport Kate through time?
2. Kate has believed since she was a child that she is destined to save the world, but her efforts to save it go tragically wrong. What makes her fail? What is the novel saying about political idealism?
3. The novel features real historical figures, notably William Shakespeare. How does this affect your reading of the novel? Is Newman’s portrait of Shakespeare anything like how you imagine Shakespeare?
4. What does 9/11 represent in the book? In the 9/11 scene, Kate suggests going back in time to kill Shakespeare to make the world a better place—including preventing 9/11. If you believed that would work, would you do it?
5. Emilia seems to be fixated on “Tom O’Bedlam,” a song about a man who becomes a mad beggar on the streets of England. Discuss the importance of the song to Emilia/Kate.
6. Do you think the reader is meant to believe Kate is really mentally ill? Does Newman answer this question, or is it left unresolved? Which answer do you prefer?
7. Discuss the evolution of Kate’s relationship with Ben and how her experiences in the sixteenth century change their bond. What draws them together?
8. Discuss the changes that occur in characters like Sabine and Oksana. Have they really changed, or is it only the circumstances around them that are different? Do you think you would be a different person in a more utopian or dystopian world?
9. How does Newman achieve a post-apocalyptic mood in The Heavens?
10. Compare the characters of Ben and José. How does José serve as a foil to Ben? Are you surprised when he is revealed to be having the same experiences as Kate?
11. Sandra Newman has said there are five ways to describe her novel: historical fiction, time-traveling fantasy, political allegory, social realism, and a love story. Do you agree? Which genre worked best for you? How do the different genres develop throughout the novel?
12. Why is Ben so hostile to Kate when he visits her in the hospital? Is he a good man, a loving boyfriend to Kate, or as Oksana says, “not a good person” (pg. 227)? Is Kate right to forgive him at the end? In the end, do you believe he has changed for the better or the worse?
13. Discuss the ending of the novel. How does the resolution of the story address the many questions the novel presents? Is it a happy ending? If you could write the ending, what might you have done differently?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, Days of Cain by J.R. Dunn