In the first pages of Mark Helprin’s new novel, we’re given what amounts to a to-do list of what’s to come. The delivery is subtle, a mere thought on an airplane from New York to Paris; and yet, it anchors us before we dive into the entangling incidents surrounding Helprin’s authentic protagonist, Jules Lacour.
Lacour is a cellist and composer on the Sorbonne faculty in Paris. He’s also a widow, grandfather, child Holocaust survivor and Algerian war veteran. Lacour is a good man, who now at the age of 74 stays physically strong by rowing the unpredictable currents of the Seine. He also grieves the death of his wife and a career that didn’t amount to much. He lived for music but regrets not having earned more money. Lacour wants to send his critically ill grandson to the United States for medical treatment, but he can’t afford it.
A series of surprising and shocking events occur, including an international insurance company willing to pay thousands of Euros for a 60 second jingle. Lacour submits a composition – and, at the same time, he falls in love with a student cellist 50 years his junior. Then, late one night, walking home, Lacour encounters a man being violently beaten. When he sees the victim’s yarmulke, he fiercely comes to the man’s defense. A savage crime takes place, but Lacour escapes and soon after travels to the United States to meet with the corporate gorillas at the insurance company.
Things don’t go well, and flying home to Paris, Lacour formulates that to-do list I mentioned earlier — plan revenge, save his grandson’s life and give his own.
This is a sophisticated narrative with a lot going on, but that’s not unusual for author Mark Helprin. He’s a skilled master when it comes to creating intricately plotted stories. In this one, he spins a magnificent web with multi-layered thematic threads of love, music, guilt, morality, loyalty and loss. The precision of the writing style keeps the storytelling crisp, while the drama draws us deeply into an enthralling world.
Police and insurance investigators pursue Lacour for his crimes. He stays steady in these uncertain days, and along the way, he recognizes the power of love and conscience in his tragic past and risky present. The revelation is one of many reasons why it’s easy to forgive what he’s done.
A version of this review ran on WOSU 89.7 FM NPR News.