By Wendy Smith
October 6, 2012
In Sunlight and in Shadow
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 720 pp., $28
It's been 17 years since Mark Helprin's last novel, "Memoir from Antproof Case," and he's lost none of his gift for bravura storytelling and lavish prose. Indeed, prose seems too mundane a term for Helprin's extravagant way with words and emotions as he chronicles the courtship and marriage of Army veteran Harry Copeland and heiress/actress Catherine Thomas Hale.
Post-World War II Manhattan isn't merely the backdrop for their love affair; it's a magical urban landscape of "whitening sunrises … ferries that glide across the harbor trailing smoke … bridges diamond-lit and distant."
Even when Helprin first won acclaim three decades ago for such early works as "Ellis Island and Other Stories" and the novel "Winter's Tale," his penchant for providing an epiphany on nearly every page could become wearying. But just when you think "In Sunlight and in Shadow" might float away into the ether, lofted by the sheer beauty of his sentences, he brings it down to earth with a shrewd comment on the speech patterns of Catherine's ultra-privileged social class, or a vividly specific account of the production process at the West 26th Street loft that houses Harry's high-end leather goods business.
Helprin doesn't forget that he has a tale to get on with, and he has a knack for choosing just the right tantalizing detail to make readers wonder what will happen next.
This knack is evident from the opening pages, which take us inside an empty apartment overlooking Central Park in November 1947. On a table by the entrance stands a folded piece of card stock, containing a note within "waiting to be read by someone living." What's in that note? Who wrote it and who is it for? We won't find out for 700 pages, but we're already hooked.
The momentum is maintained as the narrative turns back to May 1946, when Harry and Catherine meet on board the Staten Island Ferry. Helprin skillfully and swiftly sets up the difficulties that challenge their immediate, overpowering mutual attraction. He's Jewish; she's from the WASP elite. His business is in financial trouble. She's betrothed to a creep named Victor Marrow who, when Catherine humiliatingly throws him over at the engagement party, schemes behind the scenes to bankrupt Harry's company and ruin Catherine's Broadway debut.
In Helprin's rhapsodic rendering, these trials cannot shake his golden couple's ecstatic bond. Secondary characters provide some grit to counterweight all that lyricism. The loathsome Victor and the menacing gangster Verderamé make suitably nasty villains who get satisfying comeuppances, though Verderamé's comes at a terrible price. Cornell Wright, the African American who runs Copeland Leather, anchors Harry with his common sense; a leather polisher named Guada, who falls prey to Verderamé's goons, gets a moving elegy that proves Helprin can write simply when he chooses.
But expecting Helprin to curb his poetic impulses would be like expecting Dickens to ease up on the sentimentality and social criticism. Despite its tragic climax, "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is at heart a romance, not just the romance of two attractive young people but the romance of life itself.
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