Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012: Maximum Shelf: In Sunlight and in Shadow


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: In Sunlight and Shadow by Mark Helprin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Hello, Gorgeous by William J. Mann

In Sunlight and in Shadow

by Mark Helprin

Lush, poetic and elegant, Mark Helprin's writing has garnered many accolades and a legion of loyal readers. It has been seven years since the publication of Helprin's previous novel, Freddy and Fredericka, and as he has done over the course of the last four decades, he has rewarded the patience of his fans with a rich, languorous tale that demands to be savored slowly. Never fitting neatly into any specific genre, Helprin's work has often featured elements of magic realism and satire that complement his extravagantly lovely prose. While In Sunlight and in Shadow proves a departure from those elements--its action, setting and characters are quite straightforward--it does return to themes that Helprin has explored before; among them, post-World War II America (specifically, a gorgeously detailed New York City), the examination of class division in society and, perhaps most importantly, the nature of love.

In Sunlight and in Shadow begins, as so many love stories do, with a chance encounter. It's May of 1946 and Harry Copeland has recently returned to his home in Manhattan from his tour of duty as an elite paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. The heir to Copeland Leather, the well-regarded luxury leather goods business his father founded, Harry spends much of his time running through the city--an effort to keep his postwar stress at bay. "And if there were a way to come from darkness into light," Helprin writes of Harry, "and to stay there as long as life would allow, he wanted to know it. He was thirty-two, the war was over, and he wanted to leave even the shadows that he himself had made and to which he feared he was becoming a lifelong apprentice. But he could not imagine how." Immersed in these dark thoughts as he waits to board the Staten Island Ferry, Harry spies a beautiful young woman dressed in white. Within a moment she is gone, but Harry is completely smitten: "For him, beauty was something far more powerful than what fashion dictates and consensus decrees. It was what both creates love and what love creates."

The woman is Catherine Thomas Hale, the only child of one of New York's wealthiest families. But Catherine, who is as taken with Harry as he is with her, is reluctant to give Harry her real name and offers instead her stage name. An actress and singer, she is about to debut in a Broadway show. The two meet for lunch and then dinner, falling irrevocably in love with each other before Catherine reveals her real identity and also that she is engaged to Victor Marrow, the scion of another wealthy New York family. Their impending marriage, in fact, is more of a merger than a love match. Catherine tells Harry that the much-older Victor raped her when she was 13 and has been taking advantage of her since. Still, Catherine can't see a way to get out of the marriage to mean and vengeful Victor. A massive engagement party is being planned and she feels obligated.

But Harry is a man who has been renewed by love and will not be deterred. However, while plotting how to crash the engagement party and spirit Catherine away, Harry runs into some serious problems of his own. The mob, in the form of a quietly sinister boss named Verderamé, is squeezing Harry for protection money at quadruple the rate of every other business in the neighborhood. Why Verderamé wants to put Copeland Leather out of business is not explained, but Harry--beaten to within an inch of life when he tries to reason with the mobster--must either capitulate (impossible) or lose the business his father worked so hard to create. Harry gets his girl--the sequence where he storms the engagement party and leaves with Catherine is one of the most dazzling in a novel filled with beautifully written passages--but once he does his troubles multiply. Now he has both Verderamé and Victor gunning for him. Full of love for Catherine, yet still haunted by the war, Harry devises a dangerous all-or-nothing plan to take out his enemies and plunges into it headlong.

At 700 pages, In Sunlight and in Shadow is not a novel that can be rushed through. Indeed, it unfolds like a particularly intricate dreamscape where its characters and plot are revealed in small, jewel-like details. Helprin's gift for description cannot be overstated and his ability to convey the effects of war on both the micro and macro levels is extraordinary. The freighted love that Harry and Catherine share and the specter of violence form a delicate counterpoint, the sunshine and shadow of the title. But as the novel reaches its end, it becomes apparent that only one--love or war--will emerge triumphant. Richly atmospheric and beautifully written, In Sunlight and in Shadow is a paean to love that will linger long in the imagination. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Photo: Staten Island Ferry by Louis Faurer (The Jewish Museum)

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, hardcover, 9780547819235

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: In Sunlight and in Shadow by Mark Helprin


Mark Helprin: Of the Time, and Timeless

Mark Helprin is the acclaimed author of Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, Freddy and Fredericka, The Pacific, Ellis Island, Memoir from Antproof Case and numerous other works. His novels are read around the world, translated into more than 20 languages.

In many ways, not least their intellectual and emotional frankness with each other, Catherine and Harry seem like a 21st-century couple. In which ways are they of their time? Conversely, in which ways are their circumstances and relationship timeless?

Having lived at this point 82% of my life in the 20th century, starting before its midpoint; having been brought up and taught by those who were born and in many cases raised in the 19th century; and having read to exhaustion from the Greeks through Jackie Chan (well, okay, cinema may be his true calling), I am certain that quite a bit of intellectual and emotional frankness existed between men and women before the year 2000, or, if you are a purist, 2001.

That is to say that people are indeed of their time, and also, as you suggest, timeless in the essential, which is one of the things that literature both demonstrates and affirms. To paraphrase Churchill, fashion and the contemporary are but the glittering scum that ride upon the wider and deeper currents of history and human nature. Before my father convoyed to North Africa in WWII, coming from a unit in which one man out of every two would not survive, when he took leave of my mother the mores of the time did not overwhelm whatever it was between them that could have just as easily taken place between Odysseus and Penelope, Heloise and Abelard, Tristan and Iseult, a present-day reservist and his wife before his deployment to Afghanistan, or Harry and Catherine in In Sunlight and in Shadow. It even happened to me, in the early '70s, a duffel bag over my shoulder and a rifle slung from it, at a bus station as I parted from my wife. I don't imagine that if the scene were repeated now it would be much different for any of us--even Tristan and Iseult.

Which is mainly to say that love, sacrifice, honor, courage, charity shine through all time and cannot be overwhelmed by the dross of this or any other present, which is partly what this book is about, for were it not, there would be no point in having written it.

Anti-semitism--both blatant and subtle--is a recurring theme in the novel. Was this theme present for you when you began writing In Sunlight and in Shadow or did it emerge and develop as you wrote?

As the story told itself and I followed, everything in it emerged when appropriate. I had no detailed intentions at the onset, certainly not in regard to the theme of anti-semitism. It's not even a theme, really.

To the extent that it does appear, it is based on my own experience, which in this regard is rather extensive. There is an episode in the book in which young Harry and his father have to turn around in Boca Raton because a sign at a hotel reads "No Negroes, Dogs, or Jews." From the back seat of my father's rental car, I read that sign in 1954. I was severely beaten, more than once, by adults, because I refused to participate fully in church services at summer camps in the '50s. In the fall of 1967, as a Harvard junior hitchhiking to Boston, I was picked up in Connecticut by a mesmerizing girl who was driving with her brother in a Volkswagen "bus." They invited me for dinner with their parents in Darien, and all was going swimmingly, especially between me and her, until her father discovered that a Jew was partaking of his Scotch, from one of his glasses. Seldom have I seen such hatred and anger as when he volcanically arose and threw me out of his house.

I could go on for an afternoon, but what is this compared to the Holocaust? Less than nothing. Is it America? Absolutely not. Do I feel like a victim, or entitled to some sort of compensation? Of course not. And that's how Harry treats it, too. He knows that it is only an aberration, and that the essence of America is not, as contemporary fashion would have it, our diversity, but our unity as Americans, based on the idea of equality expressed so magnificently in the Declaration and then sought with such sacrifice and struggle throughout our history. He's so confident of that, as am I, that the anti-semitism he encounters slides right off him. He senses, as the four generations of my family preceding me in America and I myself have, that things like this represent neither the true heart of this country nor the course it will take. And Catherine, who is quick to learn and generous of heart like her aristocratic forebears, soon comes to understand it as well.

Much of the novel focuses on the period of post-traumatic stress and adjustment that followed World War II; both on a broader level--society--and on an individual--Harry. You have written about this time period and this war before. Can you tell us why this is, for you, such an important moment in our history?

On the 5th of May, 1946, my family association held a "Victory Dinner and Dance" to honor the 26 of its sons who served in the Second World War, including my father, his brother and my cousin  Robert, who died in his P-39. Most of the men that I knew when I was growing up, and many women, had not long before been drawn into the greatest conflagration in human history, with more than 50 million dead and the world much reordered. As a child, I spent four years with a French First World War poilu and his wife who both lived through the German occupation of France and were members of the resistance. For them, everything was "La guerre, la guerre, la guerre." The war to me is the set point and emotional home of modern times, the scene of inimitable courage, sacrifice, horror and tragedy on the greatest scale.

It is not because of my specific (and actually tenuous: I was born just afterward) relationship to it; it is because of its nature that it looms so large. My wife, a woman as lovely and generous of heart as Catherine, is four years younger than I am and not as connected, and yet she has always felt exactly the same way. Here I must cede a point to you, when you asked if Harry and Catherine were of their time. Yes, because they were deepened by the war in ways that although not unique, do not occur without letup in history, and thank God for that.

What would you most like readers to take away from In Sunlight and in Shadow?

I would be pleased were they to love the characters deeply, as I do, and to feel committed to them, as if they know them, even a little perhaps as if they are them. I would be pleased if the reader will emerge as if from another world, and, as in some dreams, yearn at least for a moment to go back. And, of course, I would be most pleased if the book would stay with them and become part of their lives, which, for me, would be a prize greater than the Nobel.  --Debra Ginsberg, author 


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