Mark Helprin has an amazing talent. I have been faithfully reading his work since the 1980's. He is one of the few authors that I think is worthy of repeated readings every few years. No one would accuse him of being prolific. In 4 decades of writing he has published 3 collections, 3 children's books (certainly worthy of adult attention), and 6 novels including In Sunlight And In Shadow. Given that his work is rare and consistently wonderful there are not many authors that would excite me more when I hear of a new novel being published. So I picked up an advanced reading copy on ebay (even before amazon vine offered me one) and prepared myself for a long enjoyable ride. Mark Helprin is not an author that should be read quickly, so I forced myself to slow down and enjoy these 700+ pages.
I started out enjoying the book as I settled into Helprin's familiar descriptive style but as the weeks progressed I am sorry to say that this book is somewhat flawed compared to the author's usual high standards. Helprin's work is never a page turner but this one could not hold my attention the way he has done in the past. You can read in the amazon description what the work is about; at the core it is a love story even though there are are some parts of the novel that are action packed. Helprin's prose is consistently beautiful but it often does not serve the story as it usually does in his older work. Random imagery and excessive descriptions of everything abound in this book. Poetic prose should add to a tale, not be the bulk of a book. I am an avid admirer of his style but over the course of 700 pages I found it too much. After a major and very moving plot twist we are exposed to a lengthy description of a character getting dressed, which greatly diminished the mood that the author just created. This happens often. An editor could have easily omitted 200 - 300 pages, whole paragraphs, and not changed one iota of the story. I acknowledge that there may be many long time Helprin readers who could enjoy this book all the way through, but I think that some readers new to Helprin may be unable to finish, or at least find it lacking for long stretches.
The parts of the story where actual interaction and events occur is excellent. Helprin makes Harry's recollection of his time in the war come alive and handles the final confrontation in the book fairly well. Sadly the times of action or even human interaction in the story are sometimes widely spaced. Which brings me to what I think is the greatest problem of the book - everything serves the love story. Other interesting characters are neglected, sometimes forgotten. The disposition of 2 major villains is glossed over and opportunities for emotional confrontation wasted - unforgivable in a 700 page book which makes space for many lesser themes. But here's the big thing - the love story is not quite believable. I am a romantic at heart but no one acts like Catherine and Harry. No one has the character of Catherine and Harry. They are perfect. Their flaws and foibles are amusing idiosyncrasies only. Their stubbornness is virtue. Helprin elevates human love here to a divine state; he turns it into everything. But we never see ourselves in these 2 lovers because none of us could match up to that standard. I contrast In Sunlight and In Shadow to another deeply romantic novel - The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Niffenegger takes 2 flawed people who are committed to each other, even destined to be with each other, and makes me care about them deeply; because their actions and character are believable. Helprin tries to turn the human into the divine and misses both. But he is such a good writer we can forgive him, up to a point. I will say that the last few pages are so well crafted and gorgeous that I could not help but be caught up.
I realize that I am somewhat conflicted and contradictory here. Maybe I am being too harsh, but great artists always have the burden of living up to their previous work. 3 1/2 stars is a disappointing rating but that is a reflection on how well Mark Helprin has done in the past. This is a good novel that many people will enjoy, but it does not achieve the heights of the author's other works.
Let's start off with the fundamental bulwark of this opus: It is replete with powerful, masterfully wrought lyrical prose the like of which you won't find in any American novel published in the 21st Century. To give an example of the language that permeates this 700 page work, here's an excerpt from the first few pages:
"In the weeks before the solstice it was as if, moving at great speed toward maximum light, the world had a mind of its own. It clung to a reluctance that would slow it as the brightest days began to grow darker. It is perhaps this hesitation at the apogee that lightens the gravity of our sorrows, such as they are, in luminous June evenings and on clear blue days." Lovely, no?
But there are problems: The book, as Helprin never ceases to remind us, time and again throughout these 700 pages, is supposed to be a love story. But it simply fails to convey the love between our two protagonists, Harry and Catherine, in any meaningful, deep sense. The IDEA of love, yes, is conveyed with all the lyrical profundity for which one could wish. But the sense of actually being in love? I could find it nowhere in this book. There is a reason for this lack: The book is essentially about Harry (read Helprin himself, who is also Jewish and attended Harvard and Oxford and served in Israel with the IDF) and his philosophy, and what he omits is the obverse side of the state of being in love, the spiritual pain, the anxiety, all of what Yeats calls "the sorrow of love" is entirely absent from every page of this work.
Again, the reason is that what Helprin has chosen to write is not really a novel, but a Romance in the old sense of the word with Harry as Sir Launcelot, endlessly pursuing his Holy Grail of Guinevere or Catherine in the book, who always comes across as some alabaster Aphrodite rather than as a real woman, enwreathed by Helprin in silver, snowy sentences.
And so with the other characters, who sound so much alike Harry in voicing their opinions and inner thoughts that one begins to wonder why Helprin didn't simply write the book as a monologue of his 1947 knight-errant, Harry Copeland.
So, having recounted the book's shortcomings, or perhaps idiosyncrasies, let's move on to the strengths that stem from this puissant, masterful writing:
The chapter "Snow" is the finest piece of writing I've read in quite some time. In recounting the experiences his group of pathfinder airborne squadron holding the front lines, waiting for reinforcements in the Winter of 1944-45, Helprin has created a minor masterpiece of a short story or novella. If you start the book and decide that it's not for you and that you can't even consider finishing it - I imagine this will be the case for many readers. - please at least skip to this chapter and read it. It's worth the entire rest of the meandering opus.
I've stated above that this tome is actually about Harry or Helprin's philosophy. It would be amiss of me to end the review sans summary of what this philosophy consists: It's essentially a type of Platonism, more akin to that of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus, than to Plato's. It's a view of the world in which we have fallen, through many layers, from an eternal light to abide for a short span in this world. But this world is a good place, if not perfect, retaining reflections of that eternal light from which we have fallen and to which we shall return, and to which we can actually return, at least partially, in this life, if we give ourselves to the contemplation of the beautiful, which is merely another another way of saying, that on which the eternal light shines. All this you will find in both this book by Helprin and in the Enneads of Plotinus.
Be all this as it may: What do I think of the book as a whole? I think it's very powerful and a brave thing to have written amidst today's literary culture of darkness, gloom and Gnosticism. Helprin surely must have been full-aware, whilst composing it, of the sneers it would receive and, yet, like Launcelot, he soldiered on, following his own pole star. There are sections of this work that shine like stars in the firmament. I could give this book four, or even three stars, and sit back and sneer and nitpick along with many others. But the book, if nothing else, imparts true courage and a sense of the brevity of life; it offers hope, to those who would reach for it.
Goethe wrote: "Whosoever strives unceasingly upwards, him can we save."
The book encourages one to take risks, to be bold, even brazen, regardless of how many times, like Sir Launcelot, one is knocked from his/her horse. So, lest I fall short of Launcelot, and cease to strive toward the timeless beauty that all literature, at its best, offers us-----5 stars, and with them my neck.
Mark Helprin has done it again. He has written yet another evocative, enthralling, lyrical novel about life, love and a life well lived. As with his other novels, I enjoyed this one immensely and the story will stay with me forever.
If you're not already a fan of Helprin, this is an excellent book, maybe the best one, to start with. If you are already a fan, you won't be let down.
A few notes for Helprin fans:
- This seems to me to be his most "realistic" novel yet. By this I mean that it has no "magic" such as one finds in Winter's Tale and the book includes little (if any) absurd implausibility such as one finds in Soldier of the Great War or Freddy and Fredericka. This isn't a criticism, I just thought you might want to know.
- The characters don't seem as memorable, or quirky as the denizens of his other books. Again, not a criticism as they're very well drawn and internally consistent.
- This novel seems more unrelievedly serious than his other work, with none of the whimsically humorous episodes that one finds in other works.
As I say, none of these are complaints nor did they detract from my pleasure in reading the book. They are just observations based on more than 20 years of reading Mr Helprin's work.
on October 24, 2012
I really don't want to give this book a 2-star review; Mark Helprin is a brilliant writer, his prose is absolutely gorgrous, and "Winter's Tale" is one of the 5 or 10 best novels of the 20th century as far as I'm concerned.
But "In Sunlight and In Shadow" just doesn't work as a novel. Yes, the prose is beautiful; I would sell my soul to be able to write 1/10 as well as Mr. helprin does. The descriptions transport you to postwar Manhattan and the various other times and places of the book. And the characters are, in some cases, drawn most compellingly.
All that said, there are several things that absolutely ruin the book for me. First, the central love story is just too slight to support the weight of prose and description that Mr. Helprin has built. For lack of a better way to say it, Harry and Catherine and their relationship aren't "worth" 700 pages of beautiful and effusive language.
Second, once you get past Harry, Catherine and to a lesser extent her parents, the other characters get very short shrift, most especially the villains of the piece. Compare this to "Winter's Tale" - as much as we're meant to both fear and boggle at Pearly Soames, and laugh at Craig Binky, they're far more well rounded than Victor Marrow or the Sicilian mobster Mr. Verderame (who's not even given the dignity of a first name, as I recall).
Third, the structure of the book is just a mess. The plot stops dead for four straight chapters of flashbacks, which themselves have more flashbacks within them. The resolution of the story is much too quick and utterly unsatisfying. I can't say more without going into spoilers.
I wish I didn't have to say this, but I would absolutely NOT recommend this book to anyone, even a fan of Helprin's other work.
I read "In Sunlight and In Shadow" weeks ago and I am still haunted by the bittersweet romance between former World War II paratrooper - and Harvard alumnus - Harry Copeland and the young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale. It is a mesmerizing, quite captivating, tale told brilliantly in Helprin's exceedingly rich poetic and descriptive prose, marking the long awaited return of one of the world's greatest novelists and storytellers writing in the English language. Helprin has rendered a startlingly original twist on the themes expressed in William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", portraying the romance between Copeland and Hale as one that endures despite the anti-Semitism Copeland experiences and the ever present threat of unseen enemies, especially the Mafia, which seek to destroy both their romance as well as Copeland's livelihood, the elite garment-making firm he has inherited from his father, and eventually, even threatens his life. "In Sunlight and In Shadow" ranks among the most realistic depictions of late 1940s New York City, I have ever read, and Helprin achieves this without forsaking the splendid lyricism of his prose, which will remind many readers of the magical realism depicted vividly in his great New York City fantasy novel, "Winter's Tale". This is one vast sprawling epic of a novel that takes us to the offices of Wall Street financiers, the Long Island clubs and mansions inhabited by the old, aristocratic, New York Dutch and English-descended wealthy elite, and the seedy dives and restaurants of SoHo and Greenwich Village frequented by violent Italian-American mobsters all too willing to settle their differences via mayhem and murder. Mark Helprin demonstrates again why he is one of our finest American writers of fiction in "In Sunlight and In Shadow"; a truly impressive achievement of exceptional literary art that is, without question, this year's best novel and ranks alongside "Winter's Tale" as among his finest works of fiction, and among our greatest American novels.
on November 5, 2012
The task Mark Helprin has set himself in IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is formidable, but no one could be better suited for it. Helprin here makes an honorable attempt to bring back New York City in 1947, awake and alive, brimming with vitality and confidence, while still mourning the multitudes of wartime dead. His hero is Harry Copeland, a paratrooper and pathfinder who fought his way through Europe to find the inheritance of his father's leather manufacturing company waiting for him. His heroine is Catherine Hale, child of fortune, emerging star of the Broadway stage. They meet on the Staten Island Ferry as it steams into its slip, both wreathed in near-electrical currents of passion, desire and love.
That's the story, anyway, and if it sounds a little thin, maybe it is. It's hardly the point. IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW is not so much about Helprin's narrative skills as it is about his command of the language and his intimate knowledge of postwar New York and its environs. When the intricacy of the detail combines with the complexity and the structure of the prose, the result is beauty matched with eloquence.
The best of Helprin's books combine his signature prose style with a compelling (if often meandering) narrative and complex, memorable, eccentric characters. IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW has a simpler structure and less baroque plotting. The novel sets up barriers between Catherine and Henry's romance, and then finds unlikely ways to knock most of them down. Catherine's jealous ex-fiancée hovers around the story as a bogeyman, but his malevolence is less palpable than advertised. The gangster who threatens Harry and his business is a more formidable and intimidating foe, but he, too, remains in the shadows for most of the book.
The real problem is that the main characters are simply too good to be true, and maybe too good for this Earth. Catherine Hale (as the reader is told again and again) is possessed of surpassing beauty, an angelic voice and demeanor, intelligence and wisdom, and a surprising degree of humility considering her privileged upbringing. Helprin lavishes her with praise, making her very buttonholes a reflection of her beauty and grace. Her only flaw seems to be an insufficient grasp of how other people perceive the things that she takes for granted, such as yachts, private planes and long summers in the Maine wilderness. You can understand why Harry loves Catherine so much, but it's harder to gauge why the reader is supposed to.
Harry, on the other hand, has flaws, but they are the kind that people claim to have in job interviews. He's too committed to his business and cares too much about preserving it. He is a physical paragon and, as we learn, a war hero. (Helprin's lengthy explication of Harry's war record is by far the best and strongest part of the novel.) He loves truly, speaks truthfully, and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty on the factory floor. He is honorable to a fault, and if that sounds like a cliché, it isn't in this context. Your typical Helprin hero is not above a little rascality now and then, but Harry is too much of a straight arrow for that, and it shows.
As its title implies, IN SUNLIGHT AND IN SHADOW sets the splendid and the fine against the dark and the corrupt, and examines their interplay, how light and love can overcome the darkness, and how the shadow of evil and the rough ministrations of chance can extinguish that light, and love, and life itself. One can argue that the contrast is too stark, that Helprin's prose is too overwhelming, and that the fate that honor and self-sacrifice dictates for his characters is too cruel. But the reader must take Helprin on his own terms, appreciating his worldview, understanding the terrible demands of that honor, and finally, accepting the reality that even the most talented novelist cannot bring back the dead, as much as we might wish that it could be so.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds
on May 26, 2013
I have been a Helprin fan ever since I read Winter's Tale in 1983. I was so engrossed that I got the worst sunburn of my life while reading it on a porch in Maine. I have read every one of his books, including his diatribe against loose copyright laws in Digital Barbarism ( a terrific book).
Most of the negative reviews here complain of his often endless prose when describing small things. With these I had no problem - Helprin is a master of descriptive language.
I loved this book up until the last few pages. I was totally engaged and couldn't wait to get the the next page or chapter. But a great novel, and this aspired to greatness, leaves a gift for the reader. Indeed, it's the reader for whom the writer writes, no? A great novel never stops, but leaves the reader with a richness that he otherwise would not have had. The end of this book took a wonderfully constructed plot, as well as a whole lot of recently hatched sub plots and sent the book into a brick wall. I won't disclose the end (something I never do) other than to say that it took a wonderful story and ended it. Slammed the gate, finis, caput, it's all over. The reader is not left to wonder what Harry or the other characters would do. I don't believe that all novels should have a happy ending, heaven forbid. Sometimes a tragedy is called for. But this book takes all of its rich plots and sub plots and brings them to an abrupt halt, an unhappy and sudden halt with no future. The worst ending I've ever read. Were it not on my Kindle, I would have thrown the book into the garbage.
on November 14, 2012
I am a big fan of Mark Helprin.
And this is why.
Pick up one of his books and turn to the middle of it, pick out some long juicy paragraph and read it.
What you read there is likely to be a thing of beauty. It doesn't really matter what the plot is. The writing is exceptionally beautiful.
Reading that random paragraph slowly and with thought, you are likely to read something akin to a poem.
I don't think that anyone else writes exactly like this. Every word has been CHOSEN.
All descriptions are incredible and lovingly drawn.
Yes, the story of Catherine and Harry could have easily been told in about 125 pages instead of 700, but it could not have been told this way.
If you are in a hurry, don't bother. It's not that kind of book.
When you want to immerse yourself in beautiful writing and be taken to a different place time after time and if you have a lot of time to read, this might be a book for you.
Or Soldier of the Great War or A Winter's Tale.
I recommended "Soldier" to my book club and only one other person besides myself (and I had read it a decade ago, so this was an extremely rare rereading)
You must be a dedicated reader, just as he is a dedicated author. If you can slow yourself down, it is well worth the effort.
on October 16, 2013
I bought this book because a description of the subject matter intrigued me--postwar New York. I was disappointed, but that doesn't mean it's a bad book. It just means I don't have any sympathy with the author's world view.
Novels always embody a politics, meaning a commentary on how the world works and why. Every choice an author makes reveals this set of assumptions. In looking at the great wide world of New York in 1946, Helprin sees corruption everywhere with the exception of two middle aged investment bankers. It's a Darwinian view expressed recently by Mayor Bloomberg--only the very wealthy can be truly moral because they are above temptation. To me, In Sunlight and in Shadow is the product of someone who embraces very conservative values. For example--the only solution to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. In a nutshell, that is the plot of the book.
The novel is set in immediate post WW II New York, but as presented it feels much more like post WW I channeled thru Scott Fitzgerald. The hero is a paragon of every possible virtue, including innocence, which makes no sense given his brutal war experiences. He falls in love with a girl on the Staten Island Ferry. She is very, very, very beautiful. We know this because Helprin goes on for pages describing her thru the eyes of her besotted lover. Her hair, her eyes, her eyeglasses and of course, her perky breasts. But she is a fantasy, not a believeable character. Daughter of wealth, Bryn Mawr graduate, and presently a bit player in a Broadway bound musical?? She too is a paragon, but of what isn't clear because Helprin has such limited interest in his female characters.
Much of In Sunlight and in Shadow involves highly artificial, stilted dialogue between the two lovers. All subjects are portentous, serving to illustrate how superior they are to everyone around them. Virtually all other characters, (except the investment bankers) are viewed with contempt. There is an unpleasant nod to political correctness in the character of the black man who manages the hero's inherited leather goods business. Again, nothing about the character is authentic. He is there to prove the hero's lack of bias.
By far the best part of the book is an extended flashback to the battlefields of World War II, first D Day then the invasion of Germany. The writing is simple and direct, the characters and action believeable. Granted, Helprin's view of war resembles a Hollywood movie--in the crucible of battle, all men are heroes and buddies. The author seems to truly believe that war is men's highest calling. Everything else is just marking time. If that viewpoint appeals to you, you will probably enjoy the book.
on November 28, 2012
In Sunlight and in Shadow is the finest novel of my lifetime - with the possible exception of Memoir from Antproof Case or Winter's Tale. The point is moot, however, as it is Mark Helprin who is unmatched in (at least) our generation. A master story-teller, he is the ultimate wordsmith. This may sound strange, but with Mr. Helprin, the storyline can sometimes seem secondary to the artistic mastery of his use of the English language. His wordplay, progressive and inner dialogue, and effortless communicative language startles and leaves you breathless; from simple literary devices to astonishing historical and literary allusions, his mastery awes like no other, save perhaps Shakespeare (yes). But...BUT...the plot of Sunlight and Shadow is one that is joyous, tragic and enthralling. You will turn pages uncontrollably - and yet in despair, as every one brings you closer and closer to the regrettable end. When I finished this book, I was haunted by it and forced to pick it up again, if only to rejoin this wonderful world.