December 28, 2012 by Reader's Connection
1946. Harry Copeland and Catherine Hale fall deeply in love. She’s an heiress and would-be actress and singer, and he’s a paratrooper back from World War II, trying to run the leather-working company that he inherited from his father. Their careers and even their lives are put at risk by their new love.
Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow is a mansion of a novel, with sunlight pouring in a multitude of windows. Unfashionably loaded with metaphors, similes and authorial pronouncements about love and life, it didn’t make the best books list of The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times, perhaps because the list-makers thought Helprin’s style was too lavish.
When she returned from playing tennis with Marisol, she closed the French doors to the terrace because a cool wind from the sea had pushed the warm air out of Manhattan like a croupier’s rake moving chips across a felt-covered table.
Or perhaps they thought the lovers were too perfect–Catherine too beautiful and talented, Harry too idealistically loyal to his family’s tradition–to live on as memorable characters.
There are generous passages about the war in Europe, and Harry visits California and a steel mill in Gary; but for much of its 700 pages this is a tale of New York City. Unlike Helprin’s earlier New York-based Winter’s Tale, this one has no flying horses or lovestruck burglars coming back from the dead. When gangsters visit Harry at Copeland Leather, though, to announce that the cost of “protection” has been raised, here is how they’re described.
Their faces were huge, and had a quality that made him think of the exfoliated tops of the stakes that anchor circus tents; and of a butcher shop with heavy cuts of meat hung from hooks, gravity coaxing their dense flesh into a downward bias and red bloom. These men looked as if they were starving for violence that the world in its cruelty refused to provide. They seemed almost as big as elephants, they moved like wolves, and their little eyes really could have fit into the head of a rat.
Even if the description reminds you of real gangsters you’ve seen in photographs or met at parties, it’s clear that Helprin is enjoying himself. And I don’t know if anyone in the real world has ever spoken dialogue the way his characters do. The fantasy elements of Winter’s Tale may not be here, but without being “magical realism” or “inspirational fiction,” this is heightened storytelling. Many episodes–Catherine’s discovery that Harry is Jewish, to pick one out of a hundred–are delivered with a fuller orchestration than you’ll hear in most contemporary novels.
Which may drive you crazy. I loved it, all the way through. (I only loved about two-thirds of Winter’s Tale, and it’s still a favorite.) I think Helprin is telling me that our lives–not just the lives of Harry and Catherine, but yours and mine–are drenched with meaning, requiring us to be more attentive and compassionate.