The Last Book of 2014: 'In Sunlight And In Shadow'

A while back I wrote a post about the prologue of this 700-page tome by Mark Helprin. The first section set this enchanting scene of an apartment building overlooking Central Park in the summer of 1947. The prologue was the best part of this bloated, self-indulgent, overwritten novel that challenged every bit of determination I have to finish. I forced myself to turn the pages and scoffed at the ending, tossed it aside and snorted. Rarely have I ever disliked a book so much.

In Sunlight And In Shadow has such a glorious premise: Harry Copeland is a returning World War II soldier who falls in love with a talented heiress, Catherine Thomas Hale. The entire story is set in 1940s New York City, and both characters must come to terms with post-war America and their separate identities, their pasts, and their future together. I don’t know where this story went wrong but I think it was with the very first chapter.

I tried three times to read the first 14 pages and struck out and didn’t know why until I made it past that: the language is terrible. The back cover and Helprin himself would have you think the language is lyrical and enchanting but in truth it’s just overblown and unrealistic, as is the entire story and the characters that populate it. Harry is perfect in every way: he runs twelve miles every day, was a mega-talented pathfinder during the war, believes in love at first sight and chivalry, has an inflated sense of courage and honor and has these longwinded, overwritten discussions about life and love with everyone he comes across. He’s a wooden doll. And Catherine is only slightly better. For a book that was supposed to be about love and honor and courage, I felt nothing and cared nothing about these characters. Everything was flat and lifeless and overwrought and devoid of meaning or poignancy:

Souls, like rays of light, exist in perfect, parallel equality, always. But for when infinitely short a time they pass through the rough and delaying mechanism of life, they separate and disentangle, encountering different obstacles, traveling at different rates, like light refracted by the friction of things in its path. Emerging on the other side, they run together once more, in perfection. For the short and difficult span when confounded by matter and time they are made unequal, they try to bind together as they always were and eventually will be. The impulse to do so is called love. The extend to which they exceed is called justice. And the energy lost in the effort is called sacrifice. On the infinite scale of things, this life is to a spark what a spark is to all the time man can imagine, but still, like a sudden rapids or bend in the river, it is that to which the eye of God may be drawn from time to time out of interest in happenstance.

Blah, blah, blah. Also, not a whole lot happens. Aside from several half-hearted attempts at subplot, the major conflict of the novel ducks in and out of prominence, punctuated with a hundred-page-long flashback to the war and unimportant episodes about Catherine’s family and her past. When the major conflict does come into focus, its importance is muddled and confused. It’s rare that I can’t find one single thing I really liked about a book. I’m intensely antagonistic toward it.

After reading several reviews of The Winter’s Tale on Goodreads, I’m willing to give Helprin another shot, but if I hadn’t received the book for Christmas I doubt I’d ever pick up another Helprin.

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