I just finished reading Mark Helprin's first novel, Refiner's Fire. As some of you might know, he is one of my favorite authors. (If you asked me my 5 favorite books, Winter's Tale would always be on that list.) His writing is some of the richest and most artistically beautiful that I've ever read.
Having said this, I have yet to read everything he's written. So I picked up a copy of Refiner's Fire and one of Freddy and Fredericka and prepared myself for some escape. (In case you haven't guessed, these are the only two of his novels I haven't read.)
Refiner's Fire starts out with an amazing story of a ship full of illegal immigrants off the coast of Palestine in 1947, where a child is born and orphaned during a battle. Once we start to follow the foundling and his charmed life, however, the story starts to falter. The boy, Marshall Pearl, is brought to America and adopted by a rich couple and raised in the Hudson River Valley. At this point, the character becomes a comic book superhero who, apparently, has no character flaws and always gets the girls.
The entire middle of the book took me several months to get through because I kept putting it down. I really didn't intend to finish it. But something compelled me to pick it up again and again. I think that through Marshall Pearl's story -- one that takes him through Jamaica fighting Rastafarians, to Harvard, to the desert southwest, through the slaughterhouses of the midwest, through a sea-crossing voyage on a British merchant navy ship, to the peaks of the Swiss Alps -- what kept me going was Helprin's amazing writing. He uses the poetry of the English language to paint such amazing scenes and descriptions that the weak characters, the Dickensian coincidences, and lack of compelling plot were almost minor annoyances.
However, the book ends rather dramatically with Marshall Pearl fighting in the Israeli army in the Yom Kippur War. Once I hit the last few chapters, I couldn't put it down.
Again, the reason I couldn't let this book go was because of the writing. And knowing this is Helprin's first novel, I really must applaud this incredible book. It's still definitely a must-read, especially for Helprin fans.
Now... on to Freddy and Fredericka...