It is both a love story and the story of a young woman's recovery from mental illness after she has the good fortune to meet a thoroughly decent man. Harriet has spent years in an asylum following her brother's death. When she manages to escape, she jumps a train to New York where she is soon penniless, riding the subway at night with thousands of other homeless girls - and she can't even afford to buy a coffee in a neon-lit diner that sounds just like this one.
But when she meets John, his quiet goodness allows her spirit to mend.
The novel was a sensation when it was published in 1937 during the Great Depression, on the same day as William Maxwell's novel They Came Like Swallows.
I was fascinated by the descriptions of Depression-era New York, the El-trains and grimy rooming houses and sweatshops. But Harriet's slow, slow healing was a bit too slow for me and I couldn't help thinking that this would have been better as a long-ish short story. Maybe I just lack the patience for broken minds and broken syntax.
I'm glad that I read this but I far prefer William Maxwell. Interesting, though, that it was partly based on the experiences of Millen Brand's first wife who was deaf and came to New York when she was 17 to live in a windowless tenement in Greenwich village, supporting herself by working in sweatshops and washing dishes in restaurants.