Houghton Miflin Harcourt, 2012
Two star-crossed lovers lock eyes on the Staten Island ferry in May 1946 and a glorious story of love, secrets, loss, and perseverance begins. In a sprawling soap opera saga of mellifluous language, Mark Helprin (Winter's Tale) reveals the lives of Harry Copeland and the love of his life, Catherine Sedley, against the backdrop of post-World War II in New York City. This is not a simple tale of when Harry met Catherine.
Harry, a prince of a man, is a soldier returned from the war, a Jew, a business owner, a man who speaks in Shakespearean oratory as a matter of course. He is a man of conviction and courage. Catherine, who seeks a career on Broadway, is engaged to a nefarious cad when she meets Harry. Her birth name is Catherine Hale, for she is the daughter of one of New York's richest men and wealthy in her own right. A woman of conviction and courage, she has a secret that even she does not know about, a secret which could change the course of her life and that of her parents.
Harry has inherited from his father a business that makes the finest leather goods available. Run and partially owned by Cornell, a "colored" man, for whom Harry has a deep and abiding respect, the business is going under because Verderamé, a mob boss, is pressing Harry for protection money. Harry must decide whether to acquiesce or close the business and put loyal workers on the street. "The world is made up of insoluble problems, of things that are beyond the influence of heroic action-of bitter loss, and no recoupment." Harry decides to fight because he will not allow Catherine's money to support them.
At a recent appearance at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, North Carolina, the only bookstore on his tour, Helprin was asked what the book was about. He responded with a list of more than two dozen themes or issues raised in the novel: New York at mid-century; rise of immigrants; descendants of slaves; racial prejudice; love unrequited; courtly love; sex; love. He went on to say that Harry and Catherine were modeled on his parents. His father was in the film business and dealt regularly with gangsters and Joe Kennedy. His mother was taken to a child sexual colony but learned to be a Shakespearian actress and how to avoid her predators. Incidentally, she starred in the only play written by Thomas Mann.
The only negative note is Helprin's prolixity. Instead of writing that Catherine, after much hesitation, picked up the telephone, he uses 63 words just to get her to the phone, then more paragraphs while she waits. Why use a dozen direct words when three dozen, multi-syllabic ones will do? The prose, however, reminds one of the classic sonnets of Petrarch and those who wrote of courtly love in the most florid tropes. Helprin's text is characterized by beauty and with unusual similes and metaphors. The car horns of Manhattan are compared to the bleats of Tibetan sheep while the bustle of restaurants recalls Carson McCullers' "the wash of sound coming from the bar."
Seldom does a novel "review" itself; however, in failing to speak of Catherine's performance, this review from the novel is apropos. "Only a few times in the life of (literature comes a novel)…that is so powerful and moving that when it ends you are heartbroken to leave it and step back into your own life. Very seldom does one come to love the characters so much as to long for sleep and the opportunity to dream oneself back into their midst."
Set aside some significant time and lose yourself in the world and the characters that Helprin creates. The story will move into and out of sunlight and shadow as it propels the reader to its inevitable conclusion.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.