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literary inklings

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Mercer Street by John A. Heldt


“Then she remembered that love was blind. It was Helen Keller, hooded, in a dark room. It was a condition that rendered people incapable of seeing more than they wanted to see.”John A. Heldt, Mercer Street

The second book in John Heldt’s American Journey series finds three generations of twenty-first century women on an adventure to pre-WWII New Jersey in a search for closure, clarity, and childhood innocence. Novelist Susan Peterson is still trying to find calm amid the chaos following her husband’s unexpected death, grappling with the reality of his infidelity while trying to hold the world together for her daughter, Amanda. When Susan’s mother, Elizabeth, accompanies the Peterson women on a California adventure, none of them expect that Elizabeth’s curiosity over time-travel lecturer Professor Geoffrey Bell will grant them all the chance of a lifetime. With nothing to lose, the trio embark from 2016 California to 1939 California, and from there across the country to Princeton, New Jersey and a rented house on Mercer Street where Elizabeth comes face-to-face with her immigrant parents and their infant daughter Lizzie. With the world’s best hindsight to her advantage, an elderly Elizabeth relishes the chance to spend more time with her parents and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a meaningful connection with her younger self. Meanwhile, Susan finds love and fulfillment in working with a handsome naval admiral as Amanda finds herself crossed in love – and maybe danger – with a dashing German whose family is keeping a secret.

Wonderfully capturing the calm before the storm of World War II, Mercer Street is another beautiful novel from author John Heldt, whose remarkable talent allows him to transform time-travel from a plot device into the foundation of a substantial and unforgettable story. With terrific pacing and comfortable narratives, Heldt takes his novels outside the bounds of genre fiction and into uncharted territory as he combines romance, suspense, and observations on human nature. Mercer Street is not unlike previous novels from Heldt in its ability to carry profound insight in even its more lighthearted passages, making for an experience that will please both escapist fiction lovers and more contemplative readers alike. The era and the characters in Mercer Street suit this scheme well. Through Amanda’s love interest, Kurt, Heldt explores the vulnerability of a young German as he clings to his powerful sense of morality in the shadow of Nazi Germany’s uprising; through Elizabeth, the grace of an elderly woman’s reconnection to her younger self as she literally relives moments of her life too old to be remembered; and through Susan, a woman’s search for her own strength as one love life takes shape even as another is still to be mourned. While each character and their personal experiences manage to take root for the reader, perhaps the most arresting is that of Elizabeth as she seems to get to the very heart of the human experience. It’s hard not to be affected by the imagery Heldt creates through Elizabeth’s first meeting her younger self, and then the fostering of an undeniable connection that grows so strongly between one’s present and past selves.

One of the other great strengths of Mercer Street, as with so many of Heldt's novels, is the intrepid research that goes into the groundwork of its story. The energy of the time, when so much was unforeseeable, is captured in detail while unexpected figures from history take their turns gracing the pages in a series of cameos that will delight enthusiasts of the era. For his first novel set on the east coast Heldt has chosen a place as unforgettable as the time, with Princeton coming to life in both the simplest narrative illustrations and in Elizabeth’s poetic recollections of the world she once knew. It all comes together as the story whirls through its many manageable layers, at once comfortable to read and quite steeped in meaning, as it works up to its unexpected ending. With all the charisma, humor, and wisdom of the author’s previous novels – and with perhaps an even richer cinematic quality – Mercer Street is another winning and unmissable read from a truly well-skilled writer.

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