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When a good writer goes bad: A look at Mark Helprin’s latest

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Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow
Chuck Twardy

For a book lover, few things disappoint more than a flat effort from a beloved author. I’ve written before about bad reviews scaring me away from a book whose author has pleased me in the past (see Powers, Richard). You’d think I would have learned a lesson.

But no, Mark Helprin pulled me in again, despite a blistering review in the New York Times likening his latest, October’s In Sunlight and in Shadow, to a romance novel—and not in a good way. Starting the new year with a new e-reader, I decided to turn to a book I had overlooked and return to an author who had astonished me in the past.

Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War (1991) is on my desert-island list. It is an unabashedly romantic tale of the sort that attracts adjectives such as “sweeping” and “magisterial,” both for its engaging story and the author’s frequently lovely prose.

The Details

In Sunlight and in Shadow
Two stars
By Mark Helprin, $28.

Sunlight, too, has a soldier protagonist, but Harry Copeland, returned to New York City after service as a paratrooper in World War II, is impossibly noble and eloquent. Both he and the woman he falls in love with at first sight on a ferry, heiress-actress Catherine Hale, deliver high-minded speeches in lieu of believable dialogue. (“Love … at first sight on a ferry” and “heiress-actress” ought to provide clues to the novel’s credibility, also.)

“I didn’t know the world could be like this,” Catherine intones as she and Harry ride through a California night. “I’ve never seen the sky in such a passion of kindness.” Here, I used my e-reader’s note-maker to wonder, “Who talks like this?”

Despite this westward sally, much of the action takes place in Manhattan, which Helprin relentlessly elegizes, along with women, love and duty. Helprin is a conservative commentator who writes occasionally for the Wall Street Journal, so this worldview is not surprising—nor would it be unwelcome in judicious measure.

Harry rescues Catherine from an arranged marriage, and later recruits a squad of fellow ex-paratroopers to take on a mobster who is shaking down his business. It’s a decent tale, and some of the action and dialogue recall the Helprin of Soldier and Winter’s Tale. Elsewhere, though, the writing is bloated. Harry is more like a medieval knight than a 20th-century veteran, and you get the sense throughout that Helprin is using him to mourn a lost world that never really existed.

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