New York, New York, it's a wonderful town! And Mark Helprin's new near-epic novel makes it all the more marvelous. It's got great polarized motifs — war and peace, heroism and cowardice, crime and civility, pleasure and business, love and hate, bias and acceptance — which the gifted novelist weaves into a grand, old-fashioned romance, a New York love story that begins with a Hollywoodish meet-cute on the Staten Island Ferry.
"To be in New York on a beautiful day is to feel razor-close to being in love," Helprin writes. "Trees flower into brilliant clouds that drape across the parks, plumes of smoke and steam rise into the blue or curl away on the wind, and disparate actions each the object of intense concentration run together in a fume of color, motion, and sound, with the charm of a first dance or a first kiss."
Yes, so it's spring 1946. The postwar world seems renewed, as the music of Helprin's prose would announce. Harry Copeland, a 32-year-old former commando turned Manhattan businessman, is recently returned from the European theater. He boards the ferry for a trip to another borough, and discovers he's begun a trip to another world.
He locks eyes with another passenger, a disturbingly attractive young woman named Catherine Sedley Hale, and everything changes, for both of them. Off they go on this journey together, bound by sudden passion, growing admiration, affection, even adoration — the whole business of a major, major love affair that leads to a marriage, and beyond.
But first, Harry has to get her fiance out of the way. He's a society skunk named Victor who's been using Catherine ever since she entered puberty, and now wants his trophy for a wife. Next, Harry and Catherine have to deal with the overt anti-Semitism of upper-echelon New York society, a struggle that turns with a wickedly ironic twist as the story unfolds. And Harry, hoping to honor his late father, takes up a battle against a Mafia boss who wants to bleed the family's high-end leather goods business dry, while Catherine pursues what she hopes will become a brilliant career in Broadway musicals. Those aren't far-fetched desires; long chapters in the middle of the book take us back to the war against the Nazis, where we learn that Harry knows how to battle. And as we hear from the chapters on Catherine's reach for success as a performer, she knows how to sing.
Helprin does several things extraordinarily well: He fights for and wins our close sympathy for his characters, even as he delivers a full-throated rendering of life at war and life at peace (with a little of each in the other). He also pays wonderful attention to the natural world, such as that New York spring that opens the story, the changing of seasons, dawn in France and winter in Germany during the war, such domestic matters as 30 minutes of kisses, and the rue and wonder of a great love affair.
I was desperately disappointed, though, by the end of this grandly charming and deeply affecting novel — but only because it ended.