Mark Helprin’s epic novel “In Sunlight and in Shadow” is both very new and very familiar. It’s new because of Helprin’s gift for plunging the reader into any milieu he writes about – in this case post-World War II New York. This book will make you hear the clang of machinery on the streets, smell the leather in the leather goods factory Helprin’s hero’s family operates, and feel the sea wind on your face, as you stand with his love-struck hero on the lawn of an impossibly wealthy business baron’s getaway “cottage.”
The familiar part – Helprin is writing about star-crossed lovers, a plot line that has surely been around since the age of telling stories around the campfire. Here is a list of great books about star-crossed lovers that, to me, are ageless. You could probably find any number of these stories that have been published in the last few years (can you say “Twilight”?) but here are some that have stood the test of time.
The first is Helprin’s own “Winter’s Tale.” This novel, which came out in 1983, knocked me out and has remained with me ever since. “Winter’s Tale” is a fantasy, set somewhere around the turn-of-the-twentieth century New York. It features an orphan, Peter Lake, who, like the baby Moses, is set adrift by his parents and raised in the Bayonne Marshes of New Jersey by a group of people called the Baymen.
Peter becomes a burglar (condensing the plot here) and through his eyes, the reader is plunged into the sights, smells and stories of Manhattan. “The city was a box of fire, and he was inside, burning and shaking, pierced continually by sights too sharp to catalog,” Helprin writes. Peter discovers the love of his life, Beverly Penn, and they have a bit of a hard time working things out, as Peter must face down implacable evil with the help of a magical white horse. Helprin mesmerizes the reader with the story and his transformation of New York into a virtual ice palace. Trust me, if you haven’t read this book….run out and find it….right after you hear the rest of this list.
The next up is Edith Wharton’s fabulous novel “The Age of Innocence.” This novel, first published in 1920, won a Pulitzer, the first ever won by a woman. It remains as fresh as the day it was first serialized in a magazine.
Edith Wharton was raised in the upper-class world of Manhattan in the late 1880s, and many of her books are about this time and place, even though she sometimes published them decades later. This setting drips with privilege, and the people in her books are bound by conventions that in our day seem beyond ridiculous. But back then it was serious business.
It’s the story of Newland Archer, a lawyer and member of good standing in the upper class. He is anticipating with placid contentment his marriage to another scion of privilege, Mary Welland.
Well, almost no one writes stories about happy endings, do they? Into the plot swishes Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s exotic and beautiful thirty-year-old cousin, who has returned to New York from Europe after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a bad marriage to a Polish count. Newland is dispatched to try to talk the countess out of divorcing, for the scandal it would bring down on Mary’s family, and off we go; he falls fatally in love with Ellen, even though his marriage plans to Mary are proceeding apace.
This novel just vibrates with frustrated passion. Most of the main characters are, basically, well-meaning people, which makes their tragic situation even more difficult. This book was made into an amazing Martin Scorcese film starring the great Daniel Day-Lewis as Newland and the devastatingly beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer as the countess. Put that film on your list, but read the book first.
I am going to briefly point out the obvious, that one of the best books of all time, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” is also about star-crossed lovers, set in the gilded nether reaches of New York and featuring two people set apart by issues of class. But you already knew that.
Jumping forward, I want to mention a novel by an author we have had on the show, Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.” This wonderful story concerns an Italian innkeeper on Italy’s Ligurian coast, which I hope to visit someday because Walter made such a magical setting of it. This man, Pasquale, falls instantly and fatally in love with Dee, an obscure American actress who comes to stay at the hotel. Pasquale is told she’s dying, but things are a little more complicated than that. We follow Pasquale from 1960s Italy and the making of the movie “Cleopatra” forward to 21st century Los Angeles. We’re still in the movie world, and Pasquale has never forgotten his true love. It’s an epic story that will tug at your heart long after you have finished it, and it has a whole brace of other wonderful characters. Walter also has a devastating eye for social criticism, and his combination of critic’s eye and romantic’s soul is rare and irresistible.
Finally, I want to just mention Ian McEwan’s wonderful novel “Atonement,” which is about two star-crossed lovers who go through just about every possible difficulty imaginable, including the man’s participation in the catastrophic British retreat in France during World War II that ended with the evacuation of Dunkirk. I am just scratching the surface of this wonderful book. Read it.