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Originally published Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'In Sunlight and Shadow': Mismatched lovers in '40s Manhattan

A review of Mark Helprin's sweeping new novel, "In Sunlight and Shadow," which casts an old-fashioned pair of lovers against the spectacle of a vibrant and corrupt Manhattan in the wake of World War II.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'In Sunlight and Shadow'

by Mark Helprin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 720 pp., $28

"In Sunlight and in Shadow," Mark Helprin's latest novel, reads like an adult fairy tale, with love and romance set against the backdrop of post-World War II Manhattan in all its glittering, corrupt glory. Even if you've never taken a bite out of the Big Apple, you can sink gladly into this enticing, old-fashioned read from a writer whose fiction ("Winter's Tale," "A Soldier of the Great War") runs long, waxes philosophical and is full of lyrical flourishes.

The story opens in 1946 after 32-year-old Harry Copeland, a modern-day Achilles who is "six feet tall and solid as a rock," catches sight of a woman on the Staten Island Ferry who is so astonishing that he describes her in ethereal terms, as "a flow of color" floating on his horizon. In short order he meets 23-year-old actress and singer Catherine Sedley, aka Catherine Thomas Hale.

Harry, a paratrooper just returned from the war and the pivotal character in the novel, lets loose like a philosopher king from the beginning.

"There's something about rushing water that I can watch for hours and feel as if I need to do nothing more," he says to Catherine. "It's alive in a way that's greater than any description of it, like what you see in someone's eyes or expression, or hear in her voice."

"Do you actually speak this way?" she responds.

As soon becomes clear, Harry may be the most articulate lovebird on the planet, but the two are a mismatch. He is of Jewish immigrant stock, Catherine a blue-blood heiress. She's part of a rarefied set whose muscles, Helprin tartly tells us, "evolved mainly for approaching a maitre d', lifting a poodle, or carrying glistening packages."

Even as the filthy rich take a beating (while Catherine bemoans what a disadvantage wealth is), the moneyed and powerful are a critical part of this story, which attempts to capture the entire fabric of America's throbbing financial center at the dawn of the nation's ascendancy on the world stage. Despite the golden glow cast by the two lovers, it's not always a pretty picture, with the financial bigwigs keeping the mob at bay while everyone else accedes to the payoffs they demand, or else.

Harry decides to go with the "or else."

This is where the star-crossed lovers and their discordant backgrounds intersect with Harry's decision to fight the extortion of the leather-goods company his father started.

"I may never be rich," he tells his beloved, "but it's one thing for a Jew to ask the hand of Catherine Thomas Hale, and another for a bankrupt Jew."

He is a man with the proportions of "The Fountainhead's" Howard Roark (befitting Helprin's conservative political values) — determined to fight injustice, increasingly aware of the dangers he faces, and yet, having survived the wounds of war, inured to the risk he is taking.

"In Sunlight and in Shadow" has its improbabilities, such as when Harry and Catherine rescue a vagrant who turns out to be a Wall Street mucky-muck. An old beau seems to weigh a bit too heavily on Catherine's theatrical career by buying off every critic. But these unlikely occurrences fit with the mythical proportions of the plot, as Harry spins toward ever more treacherous waters.

"In Sunlight and in Shadow" takes a huge bite out of one very complex Apple, blending aspects of its art and commerce into a story that pulses not just with romance, but also with an energy befitting America's most vibrant city. Helprin is a master of his material.

Ellen Heltzel is a Portland-based book critic and writer.

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