I read this one because it sounded to me a bit like his Winter's Tale, the only other Helprin novel I've read and which I became completely immersed in and loved. Like Winter's Tale, this novel celebrates New York City, this time at a somewhat later period. The time is 1946 and the main character, Harry Copeland, is a well-to-do Jewish ex-soldier who's come home to run his father's leather goods business, his father having died while he was at war. (I couldn't help but note that Swede Levov, Roth's main character in American Pastorale, was also a business man in leather goods.) Harry, now in his early 30ies, had been in the special forces and fought his way from Africa to Sicily and eventually to the Normandy invasion, undertaking hazardous missions alone or with an elite team, been seriously wounded and had not exactly expected to survive. In 1942 in NY, he had two significant problems: his want of someone to love and be loved by and the need to save his father's business from the "protection rackets" which were largely unchecked by police or government in the city. And those two are related in ways that define who Harry Copeland is and how he will live his life.
Visiting an aunt (his only relative and she not a blood relative) on Staten Island, he sees a woman on the ferry and falls in love with her before he even meets her. Their love story is the at the core of the novel and Helprin writes some downright purple prose in its praise, verging sometimes on sentimentality, but for me right on the edge with the focus of the horrendous need of human beings to love, especially after living through the nightmare of the century. The woman is Catherine, only daughter of a rich financier, engaged to marry the son of another rich financier; a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr she has been trained as a singer and is in a promising Broadway show. She too was stuck by seeing Harry on the ferry.
Harry's business is threatened with ruinous protection payments, orders of magnitude higher than those his father had been paying or any other tenants of the same building are currently paying, enough to ruin the business within the year. There is no hope of help from authority. The mob rules in this kind of thing. But Harry's sense of honor and dignity and what he owes to his father's memory cannot just close the business down and leave, and eventually it becomes clear that the mob is taking orders from the ex-fiance who has also bribed the critics to ignore Catherine's talent and imply that her rich father bought her a Broadway debut.
Love and honor denominate this novel and speak loudly to a generation that's learned to accept that neither is really possible in a world where return on investment trumps all. I recommend it highly. It's a moving story, a page turner and a tear jerker, but nonetheless honest.
I rate it a 10 though I doubt the critics do. I think it might be time to read other Helprin novels since these this one and Winter's Tale have captivated me so completely. And if you're in love with New York, this one isn't to be missed. I'm not--London is the city I dream about--but I still respond to Helprin's obvious love.