The first thing you need to know about my boyfriend is that his book taste does not skew towards 'romance.' The books he's read over the time we've been dating include the following words in their titles:
You might argue: But what about The Time Traveler's Wife and The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Everything Is Illuminated and The Great Gatsby? Well, besides his weird thing for Fitzgerald, he read those books because a cute girl told him to. And even still, none of them are traditional romances with a love arc and a happy ending - they just happen to have SOME romance in them.
So when the movie preview for this book came out, and my boyfriend got all excited because he loves this book, and we clarified that he was not talking about a Shakespeare play, and he used the word 'romantic' to describe it...well, I ordered the book on Amazon very quickly to get some insight into his Fatal Guantanamo Ritual Abuse Satanic Federal Court brain. Thus my 748-page-long journey started.
The first thing you need to know is that the part of the book that is shown in the preview is indeed romantic as fuck - but that part is only up to page 215 and isn't picked up again until page 710 - and even then it's only sort of revisited. You might ask yourself if the last 38 pages of a book is really the time to start wrapping up the original plot and the answer is no, absolutely not, and the ending is truly ambiguous. It's one of those 'you get to decide how you think it ends' except, very annoyingly, the narrator ACTUALLY says "You must answer within your own heart." If I wanted to answer within my own heart I would write fanfiction.
Now onto the actual book, and I will try very hard to limit my cursing: the novel is a bit of magical realism and follows multiple plot lines over a long period of time with shifting perspectives that eventually interact. I love magical realism (Marquez, Murakami, and Bender are all favorites) and the structure is one I really enjoy (Everything Is Illuminated and A Visit From the Goon Squad are also favorites). I was really ready to love this book.
The first chunk of the book is about Peter Lake, a burglar and general criminal who is incredibly charming and handsome and the Penn family. Poppa Penn is wise, realistic, and hilarious; his daughter Beverly Penn is beautiful and ill, and the family is the kind that you wish you were raised in. This is the romantic chunk.
The second chunk of the book is a few generations into the future and centers around the newspapers published by the Penn family and gives the background of various employees in their journey to work there. Virginia Gamely, from the magical Lake of the Coheeries, travels to New York City and starts working there. Hardesty Marratta whose incredibly wealthy father's will says "All my worldly possessions, ownerships, receivables, shares, interests, rights, and royalties, shall go to one of my sons. The Maratta salver, which is on the long table in my study, will go to the other. Hardesty will decide." Hardesty - mountaineer dirt bagger - takes the salver which cryptically says "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone" and heads off to New York City and eventually works for the newspaper as well. There is a lot of talk about what this "perfectly just city" is or should be. The gorgeous Christiana who goes from being a wealthy man's armpiece to...working for the Penn family who owns the newspaper. This goes on for hundreds of pages. Also sprinkled in their little stories are the story of a gang chasing a man, the story of a man who doesn't know who he is, the story of a Mayor being overthrown, and the story of a giant ship that is impossibly large and has mysterious plans.
All of the book is overly descriptive:
"Peter Lake's eyes were the only vital part of his face as they took in the quickening images that hurtled past, and they moved with machinelike, supernatural speed, fastening precisely upon every detail, catching a glimpse of more of each of the billions that he was assigned to see. The velocity and rhythm of these many lives combined into a pure and otherworldly whistle, like that of a loon in the deep forests on a still, clear night. They lay in all positions. Some were merely dust, others the ivory bones that children fear, spookishly luminescent. In unending scenes and drolleries, they clutched amulets, tools, and coins." (this description continues for a whole page).
Some of the book is romantic:
"He could say nothing. He had no right to be there, he had already been profoundly changed, he was not good at small talk, she was half naked, it was dawn, and he loved her."
Some of the book has observations that I agree with:
"Well, actually," he said, "I seldom watch television myself - only the good programs. You know, the culture stuff."
"What's the difference what you watch?...No matter what it is, if you don't move your eyes and set the pace yourself, your intellect is sentenced to death...And besides, you just watch all those dramatizations of literature because you've forgotten how to read...Give me a night by the fire, with a book in my hand, not that flickering rectangular son of a bitch that sits screaming in every living room in the land."
(I felt very self-congratulatory reading this because I was camping and reading it next to a fire - that I later dropped the book into - and I feel very self-congratulatory re-reading this now because as I write Serious Book Reviews, my boyfriend is buying a television).
Some of the book is philosophical (okay, a lot of the book is this [ok, like, most of it]):
"The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is - and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is."
Some of the book has that Ayn Rand feel where the author is trying to brainwash you within the story. I can't find the exact quote, but the newspaper that everyone works for that is this amazing place to work for pays everyone in shares and the longer you work there or the more education you receive or the more whatever you receive, you get more shares, and thus you have incentive to work harder and make the newspaper make more money that way your salary goes up, but everyone's goes up together or down together depending on profit...something like that.
The thing that really drove me crazy, besides the way-too-many plots, the overly descriptive writing, the ambiguous ending, the uninteresting political crap that wasn't political because their debates were just about how winter is awesome and the above TV quote, the fantastical elements that seemed to have no purpose, was the description of women. Mark Helprin does not believe that average looking women deserve to be in novels. Every. Woman. Is. Utterly. Perfect. Perfection. Perfect. What follows are descriptions of women - some are main characters, and some we only see in the scene quoted - from the novel. To clarify, each bullet point is a different woman.
- She looked no more than fourteen or fifteen, had astonishing green eyes, and red hair that was piled up in beautiful waves and falling tresses. She was freckled...she had a most attractive bosom...the girl, in fact, was twenty-seven years old.
- She was a red-haired beauty, an Amazon...she was perfect and insatiable. Each breast was a marvel. Her forest of red pubic hair was soft, fragrant, and deep. She was as white as ivory...
- Her golden hair was lit so brilliantly in a crosslight that it appeared to be burning like the sun...she was beautiful...perfectly formed, rich, and young...lovely blushing girl...she was beautiful...her limbs, smoother and more perfect than ivory, beautiful in themselves as examples of form, beautiful in their motion...she was beautiful, half naked, glowing...
- Anarinda was very beautiful...Oh, Anarinda, breasts as round as clams, Thighs as smooth as flounder's soul, Hair as gold as hay. In you my bell shall toll...
- Her broad face was so perfectly beautiful above a high gray collar...that she seemed like a goddess...
- One was small and had red hair..The other was much larger and far more sensual...and she had flying blond hair, red cheeks...Little Liza Jane was sixteen, and fully developed. Dolly was still pubescent, but what she lacked in volume she made up for in freshness..her dancing bosom...he opened his eyes to feast upon the many breasts and legs in the bed. But they were all tangled up in one another already, and the two girls were breathing in slow lascivious hisses...They were not interested in him, although they let him enter and satisfy himself several times...
- she was still painfully beautiful...not to mention, her beauty...
- And Jessica Penn, standing, was an unmistakable fusion of womanly beauty and ripening sex
- I knew that you would be the most beautiful woman in the world. And goddammit, you are.
There are more examples, because again, it's basically every woman in the novel. I wish I could better articulate why it's so bothersome to have fully featured men who are short or tall or skinny or fat or old or snub nosed or ANYTHING and then only have these perfectly beautiful women. Every time a woman was introduced I had to roll my eyes through the description.
In 750-pages you can read super detailed imagery, philosophical rants, magical realism/fantasy that doesn't really WORK, a few chase scenes, a few fight scenes, a few scenes that make no sense and are not explained in any manner, and a lot of beautiful women who exist to be fallen in love with and/or fucked by men in weird ways - I just don't know why you would want to. I really didn't and finished four books between starting and ending this novel.
The boyfriend says he's going to reread the book, and I'm very curious to see if his memory of the book matches up to what he reads.