Elegant, elegiac novel of life in postwar America, at once realistic and aspirational, by the ever-accomplished Helprin (A Soldier of the Great War, 1991, etc.).
Harry Copeland is a sturdy-looking man, so much so that a wise aunt likens him to a young Clark Gable, to which he replies, “For Chrissakes, Elaine, when he was young, without the mustache, Clark Gable looked like a mouse.” There’s nothing mousy about Harry, though he does share Gable’s burden of tragedy. But that is far from his mind when he lays eyes on Catherine Thomas Hale on a New York ferry and is stopped in his tracks. He pursues her, and in time he wins her over, only to find that Catherine harbors many secrets—and that her family harbors more than a few hidden prejudices and is not at all happy when Harry comes a-courting in the place of Catherine’s longtime beau. The lovers' story is appropriately tangled and star-crossed, for if Catherine has a wagonload of baggage, Harry, a former paratrooper, hasn’t quite forgotten the horrors of the war in Europe. The story crosses continents and is suffused with the California dream, but Helprin is really most at home in New York, which he describes with the affection and beauty that Woody Allen invested in his film Manhattan. There are other celebrations—of love, of books and learning—and other regrets, as when Harry finds himself “plundered by alcohol” and on the verge of doing things he will rue. Helprin charges the story with beautiful passages: “More like gentle lamps than stars, their blinking was not cold and quick like the disinterested stars of winter, but slow and seductive, as if they were speaking in a code that all mankind understood perfectly well even if it did not know that such a language existed.”
A fine adult love story—not in the prurient sense, but in the sense of lovers elevated from smittenness to all the grown-up problems that a relationship can bring.