From Ernest Hemingway to Tim O’Brien, I find myself often drawn to war stories, especially those in which war rests at the periphery. In Mark Helprin’s nearly 700-page novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow, Harry Copeland has returned from World War II to his Manhattan home, where he assumes responsibility for his deceased father’s leather goods business. But the business is going under and the situation only worsens after he sweeps actress Catherine Hale off her feet and away from her wealthy and powerful fiance. Harry, who only wants peace but can’t resist the urge to stand up for what’s right, decides to take on the mafia boss extorting Copeland Leather.
From the first page, this sprawling novel takes the reader back to the decadence and glamour of 1940s New York, from opulent mansions in Long Island to the sun glinting off the glass buildings of the city. The prose, so carefully crafted, echoes the glitter and beauty of the decade. At his best, Helprin is poignant and profound. One of my favorite passages depicted Harry’s love of Catherine:
And of other things about her that overwhelmed him there were many. Her hands and the way she held them, unconsciously. And yet her fingers never existed in relation to each other except beautifully, no matter how they moved or where they came to rest. My God, he thought, she has beautiful hands. … He wanted to listen to her history, to know her microscopically and also from afar, to see her and also to see through the eyes that now held him in thrall.
At its worst, the novel meanders slowly through dates and drinks and plans that all seem to blur together without arriving at any real action. Philosophical hints turn into full-blown tangents. Sometimes, I couldn’t help but wish that the story were a little more concise and the language, as grand and fluid as it was, a little more selective.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel and felt moved by the characters. Although I wouldn’t reread it, I would recommend it if you enjoy finely wrought prose and stories about the postwar era. Even if you don’t make it through the entire book, its worth reading the first few chapters for the language alone.