I feel guilty as I start to write this post because I have the feeling that I don’t feel the way about Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin that I am supposed to feel. It seems like it’s one of those books that I am supposed to wax rhapsodic about because everybody else does, from the critics at the time of its publication to the girl at the used book store who sold my copy to me and said it is in her top 10 books of all time and her favorite book to read in the winter. Maybe I was hoping it would be that book for me, too. Or at least I was hoping to be as enraptured as everyone else seems to be.
I would forgive you for assuming that this book is about the timeless and epic love story between Colin Farrel and Jessica Brown Findlay, I mean, Peter Lake and Beverly Penn, based on the trailer for the film adaptation that was so prevalent in January. While their stories begin the book, it is really a love letter about the idea of New York, the magic of New York in winter, and the promise of the future. In the world of Peter Lake’s New York, time is fluid, resulting in a small lakeside town that exists in its own time and dimension, characters who are born at the turn of the 20th century and resurface on the eve of the 21st without having aged at all, and a timeline that seems just a bit off. Life in this city is all about balance, and when everything is in perfect balance, the unimaginable becomes imagined and the imagined becomes real.
I had some concerns about this book. First of all, Beverly Penn is supposed to be the great love of Peter Lake’s life, an ethereal, consumptive beauty able to tune into the music of time and winter and stars. However, I just found her to be unpleasant. Bratty, actually. I feel bad about that, but it’s hard to buy into such a great love when it’s so lopsided personality-wise. (If you wish to bring up Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler as an example of such a love, let’s be honest. Rhett is totally a diva, too.) As a result, I felt a little bit of relief when Beverly died (and I feel horrible about that) because then I didn’t have to read about her any more. She exits stage left fairly early in the book, and quite honestly I found the ensemble around whom the rest of the book focused as it moved into modern times to be much more engaging. The group, led by Virginia Gamely of the above mentioned mysterious town, Lake of the Coheeries (where the Penns, incidentally, owned a lake house), and her husband, Hardesty Maratta, are all employed of The Sun and The Whale newspapers, run by Beverly’s now elderly brother, Henry Penn. The group has a delightful, almost bohemian feel to their interactions, and the aura of the newspaper is that of the golden age of American journalism. Connecting all is the great, almost mythical white horse, Athansor, who serves as a type of guardian angel, but is really just a milk horse from early 20th century Brooklyn elevated to greater things. Some of my favorite passages were those written from the perspective of this delightful horse.
Despite my preference for the idealistic and intrepid group of journalists, I was quite bothered by several random instances of out of characterness, for lack of a better term. At one point, Hardesty becomes almost obsessively enticed by a waitress while on an investigation, to the point that he is crawling on the floor to catch her. After the exhaustive set up of Virginia and Hardesty’s enduring and eternal love (for if your love is neither eternal nor enduring, you really have no place in this book), the moment was jarring and distasteful, especially when it seemed to serve absolutely no purpose. I don’t mind when something is clearly and specifically purposeless. However, Helprin seems to establish that everything in this world is purposeful, so it is frustrating when things on which he places such emphasis ultimately don’t matter. A chance interaction in Peter Lake’s childhood is given great import only to never really be mentioned again. A poultice becomes a talisman, endowed with special healing powers, and then is just tossed away, never used. It feels gratuitous.
My last main concern is with Helprin’s style. Many times, Helprin loses himself in the beauty that he is creating, deservedly so. However, just as many times, he luxuriates so much in his own writing that the reader can easily detach, skip several paragraphs or even a page or two, and not have missed anything. Additionally, the man loves, nay worships, a long, wordy, and overly-descriptive list. Now I love a good list as much as the next person, but frankly I don’t need to know what every particular person in New York is doing at any given moment. Helprin clearly was using these musings and lists to add layers of complexity to the already detailed world of his novel, but there came a point where I wondered at what value? Ultimately they created a feeling of stagnation in the text for me, so at odds with the constant movement implicit in this world of wonder. Again, it feels gratuitous.
Wait. One more thing. Yes, I recognize that this book was published in 1982, but I want to note: I was in New York City at the dawn of the new millennium, and this ain’t what happen. Just sayin’.
I don’t want it to seem like I disliked the book. I actually liked it, or at least many parts of it. I loved the sections set in the Lake of the Coheeries and at The Sun and The Whale. I really liked several characters, Virginia and her mother, Mrs. Gamely, in particular. I think there is a wonderful story lurking somewhere in all of the characters (of whom I’ve only discussed a few here) and plots (ditto) and trappings, and Helprin presents some really thoughtful, philosophical ideas. However, I feel like Helprin bit off more than he could chew. Maybe this should be two books, I don’t know. It just seemed like there was too much going on and that so much of the beauty of the book was muddied by all extra. It’s as if Helprin was trying to make the book more than what it wanted to be. That being said, I think this is one of those books that ends up being highly personal for readers, so I would suggest reading it to find out where you lie on the spectrum of opinions. It’s very dense, but I suspect it usually reads faster than it did for me. (Starting a new job has taken away quite a bit of my reading time, though it’s a good problem to have!) So give it a go and see what you think!