Paris in the Present Tense, by Mark Helprin (Overlook, 400 pp., $28.95)
This is a very ambitious novel, to be read at many levels and thought about for a long time. Mark Helprin is his own master, telling a story that is in part a thriller and in part a reflection on the way of the world, its rights and its wrongs. In intention, he is closer to Victor Hugo or Alexandre Dumas than to any contemporary novelist I know of.
The choice of Paris as a setting, and French men and women as protagonists, tends toward fable. Descriptions in the freshest of prose of the Seine with the Île aux Cygnes and the Bir-Hakeim Bridge, the Place des Vosges, the Tuileries, and the stately mansions of Saint-Germain-en-Laye convey quite enough authenticity. Naming the several buildings of the Salpêtrière hospital and stations on the RER, the rapid-transport system, looks like overloading.