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BOOK REVIEW: On This Valentine's Day Start Reading Mark Helprin's 'In Sunlight and in Shadow' to Immerse Yourself in a Monumental Love Story Set in Post WW II New York City
Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 00:10 Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Like Helprin's "Winter's Tale" published 30 years ago, "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is also a love letter to a New York City at the height of its power, in 1946. If you've only heard of Helprin's storytelling gifts and haven't read anything by him, "In Sunlight and in Shadow" is a good introduction to one of our best writers. I think the problem he presents to critics is that he's in many ways a throwback to the storytelling tradition of fellow Jewish author Herman Wouk, as well as gentiles like James Gould Cozzens, John P. Marquand, James Jones and John O'Hara.
James Gould Cozzens? Never heard of him! You should, because two of his novels, "By Love Possessed" and "Guard of Honor" are outstanding and hold up well today, in my opinion. Cozzens (1903-1978) is often grouped with his best-selling contemporaries John O'Hara and John P. Marquand, but, according to a Wikipedia entry I endorse, his work is generally considered more challenging. Despite initial critical acclaim, his popularity came gradually. Cozzens was a critic of modernism, and of realism more leftist than his own and he was quoted in a featured article in Time as saying, "I can't read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up."
Helprin asks the question, also posed in Cozzens' "By Love Possessed:
Can love and honor conquer all?
Mark Helprin's enchanting and sweeping novel springs from this deceptively simple question, and from World War II veteran Harry Copeland's sight of a beautiful young woman, dressed in white, on the Staten Island Ferry, at the beginning of summer, 1946.
Helprin's Postwar New York glows with energy -- and there's a powerful undercurrent of corruption and graft. Harry Copeland, who fought behind enemy lines in Europe with the 82nd Airborne, has returned home to run the family quality leather business. Yet his life is upended by a single encounter with the young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale, as they each fall for each other.
Harry and Catherine pursue one another in a romance played out in Broadway theaters, Long Island mansions, the offices of financiers, and the haunts of gangsters. Catherine's choice of Harry over her longtime fiancé endangers Harry's livelihood and eventually threatens his life. In the end, it is Harry's extraordinary wartime experience that gives him the character and means to fight for Catherine, and risk everything.
You'd have to be very hard-hearted not to enjoy the passages where Harry travels the continent to get his old airborne squad back together to save his business -- and maybe his life. The California passage where Harry meets another Catherine married to one of his men is as good a piece of writing about the wounded of the Pacific as I've ever encountered.
I've been to New York City many times, but Helprin captures a time I'd like to go back if time travel exists. Jan Morris, born James Morris, Oct. 2, 1926, wrote a non-fiction account of New York City set in the same period called "Manhattan '45."
About Mark Helprin
|Born: June 28, 1947 , New York City Education: Harvard University, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Awards: Helmerich Award, World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, National Jewish Book Award for Fiction Nominations: PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, World Fantasy Award for Best Novella, National Book Award for Fiction (Hardcover), Locus Award for Best Art Book|
Table of Contents for "In Sunlight and in Shadow"
Boat to St. George: May, 1946 1
Overlooking the Sea 12
Her Hands and the Way She Held Them 24
The Moon Rising over the East River 30
Catherines Song 45
In Production 55
And There She Was 68
What Youre Trained to Do 92
Distant Lights and Summer Wind 119
Changing Light 145
Billy and Evelyn 152
Conversation by the Sea 174
Gray and Green 188
The Abacus 196
The Glare of July 201
The Whole World 213
The Gift of a Clear Day 232
The Beach Road 241
Young Townsend Coombs 248
The Settee 261
The Economics of Hot Water 272
The Wake of the Crispin 284
Speechless and Adrift 310
The Evening Transcript 316
Lost Souls 333
James George Vanderlyn 353
Baucis and Philemon 360
Crossing the River 375
The Highlands 405
Glorious Summer 436
Counsel and Arms 536
Office in Madison Square 574
The Train from Milwaukee 585
Red Steel 597
A Passion of Kindness 603
The Letter 623
In the Arcade 652
Catherine Rising 670
The Horse and His Rider He Hath
Thrown into the Sea 694
In the Arms of an Angel 712
Q&A with Mark Helprin
Q. In Sunlight and In Shadow has been likened to both your Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War. What do you say to that?
A. When I wrote Winter’s Tale, I’d often walk ten or twenty miles a day through New York, taking in overwhelming rafts of imagery, sounds, views. And when I wasn’t doing that, I virtually lived at The New York Historical Society, just as I had jeopardized my freshman year in college by sitting on the floor of the stacks at the New York section, mesmerized by one book after another.
The result of these obsessions was to live in the world of New York circa 1900 as if I were really there, as if it were still bustling invisibly right where it had been, and I could see and feel it. The book opens with, “I have been to another world, and come back. Listen to me.”
With In Sunlight and In Shadow, the effect is perhaps stronger, and, for me, easier. It takes place not in a world I had to seek but one – New York in the 40s – into which I was born. The density and accuracy of the images, the onrush of memory, the stunning recollections of sound, speech, song, dress, all came easily. The people in In Sunlight and In Shadow are, with great poetic liberty, people I knew and/or loved – even the gangsters, the financiers, the actresses, intellectuals, soldiers, and factory workers.
When I finished "A Soldier of the Great War", I gave it to several Italians to see if the pitch was correct, but with "In Sunlight and In Shadow" I didn’t have to do that, because there is nothing I know better. The book is like Winter’s Tale in that I have made it as obsessively truthful and beautiful as I could, in the hope that a reader may feel that he is in the book rather than where he is, and perhaps even wish to remain for a while, as in waking from a dream.
It’s unlike "Winter’s Tale" and more like "A Soldier of the Great War" in that in it one doesn’t depart from the texture of reality, as exceptional and intense as that reality may be. When my father read "Winter’s Tale", which I had dedicated to him shortly before he died, he said, now you’ve got to write a book as enchanting as this but in which every element is possible in the real world in which we live. Then you would have something really marvelous.
That’s what I’ve tried to do. Whether or not I’ve succeeded is not for me to judge, but I can say that writing the book gave me the same feeling, persistently over time, and always strongly, as falling in love. I’m not quite sure what that means except that it’s great to have a job that you would do even if you weren’t paid for it. //