While I was waiting for my copy of Winter’s Tale to arrive (because I saw the trailer for it and it looks like it’s just meant for me), I wandered into the library and found Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow. I’d thought the cover was beautiful when it came out in hardcover, and lately one of the girls at work and I have been discussing our interest in actually reading it.
I checked it out and must acknowledge my first thought: “Good grief, this book is 705 pages long.”
I’m not someone who tends to judge books by length (I absolutely and unashamedly judge by the cover) but if it’s more than about 400 pages, I start to get a little nervous because that’s a commitment, not just a fun recreational read. But I figured that, if I was going to read Winter’s Tale anyway (and that’s just as long) I should just read this one. Having worked on it for about a week, here’s my general opinion: beautiful, well written, and insanely LOOOOOONG.
Basic plot structure: Harry Copeland (only son of the recently deceased owner of Copeland Leather) returns from WWII and is kind of drifting as most veteran protagonists do. Then, on the ferry, he spies a beautiful woman and falls immediately in love with her. She is, of course, already engaged to another man. A nasty man. A bad man. And, oh, yeah, she’s a society girl. Catherine (that’s her name) is struggling herself because she has a part in a musical but doesn’t want people to think she bought her place because her family is one of The Families in NYC and she can do whatever she wants because she has money.
As with all love stories, Catherine and Harry really do fall in love with each other and, after Harry crashes her engagement party, she breaks it off with Bad-Boy Victor. It looks like there’s some hope, right?
Wrong. Because Victor happens to be a pretty influential (and not easily crossed) kind of dude. Copeland Leather is suddenly being shaken down by the mob, Catherine gets miserable reviews for her performances even though everyone knows she’s amazing, and finally Harry pins it all back to Victor’s madness. This forces him to make a decision: sell out and take Catherine away to try to retreat or stand his ground and fight like the soldier he is. When he chooses to defy Victor and keep fighting, he opens himself up for some serious damage, and the only question we have is whether or not he’ll survive this second war.
As I’ve mentioned, Helprin’s writing is hauntingly beautiful. The characters have some lovely and insightful conversations, NYC is described with such enchantment that it’s impossible not to fall in love with it, and you really sink into the world. However, my issue is that, despite the brilliant style, it was a little heavy for me. I like description, and I enjoy authors creating worlds into which I dive and float around for weeks and weeks. What I don’t like it wading through paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition. And that’s just a personal choice – I prefer a more equal mixture of dialogue, action, and description. Which is probably why I like Hemingway. Hmmm… My point is, ISaIS is an incredible piece of writing. I really enjoyed the story, and would love to see this condensed as a film, but it was a little much for me.
At this point, I would like to say SPOILER ALERT and suggest that if you are interested in reading this novel yourself – or at least want the ending to be a surprise – that you STOP READING.
Because that’s my main issue with this: the end.
You’re sure you want to read on? Okay, here we go.
Yep. Dead as a doornail. After he marries Catherine and she’s just found out she’s pregnant. He never knows that he has a child on the way, which just adds to the sadness. And I’m not saying I don’t like sad endings – I think there’s a place for them. If everything had a happy ending, it’d be a pretty boring world of literature. What I don’t like, though, is spending 650 pages waiting for something to happen, then get this weird section that makes it sound like he’s dying, and then get that confirmation, and have the book end essentially right after that. Not okay with me.
I also have to say that Harry gets involved in some sort of gang warfare through another character (who, for some reason, seemed in my mind to resemble an older Gatsby) and decides to take out the guy who’s robbing Copeland Leather. It’s not that I didn’t like this plot-wise, but it just felt confusing and clunky – like there was a need to add another 200 pages to really fill out the story. Maybe it’s just writing style again, but if it’d been a trimmed down interaction, I think I would have liked it more.
So generally speaking, I’d recommend this book. It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, and I enjoyed 90% of it. I think the 10% that wasn’t great for me was all down to style, which makes me even more curious about Winter’s Tale. That one’s around #3 on my reading list right now (I’ve been loaned some other new books and I’ve got to get on it), but I’m excited for it all the same.