The first book I read for this year’s Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and my second book of the year was Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. Over the holiday season I had seen the film trailer for the upcoming film to be released Valentine’s Day, and thought this would be a good read. I was right and also wrong. Winter’s Tale is about a man named Peter Lake that is transported through time by love. The synopsis on the back of the book states:
“One winter night, Peter Lake attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side. Though he thinks it’s empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the affair of a middle-aged Irish burglar and Beverly Penn, a young girl dying of consumption. It is a love so powerful that Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead.”
The book spans 100 years in the life of the characters, including the city in which it all takes place, New York City. Enmeshed in the real historical life of this city with it’s great divisions between the socioeconomic status of its inhabitants, the gangs of the five Points, and building of the great bridges that bring together the five burrows is the love tale of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn. If this was just the case, I would have loved the book. Instead, Helprin develops these characters that you come to love, and then drops them for hundreds of pages to introduce new ones. Now the reader is left hanging wondering what happened to Peter, and how these other characters fit in with the main story.
“He knew that, in the eyes of God, all things are interlinked; he knew that justice does indeed spring in great surprise from the acts and consequences of ages long forgotten; and he knew that love is not broken by time.”
Not to spoil it for you, but the main story involves all of the characters, however by the time you’ve really begun to see how they all connect you’ve read 400 pages. Don’t get me wrong, Winter’s Tale is beautifully written and the characters are interesting, but there were instances when I didn’t understand the time period things were taking place. Many of the characters acted like they were from the 19th century and yet existed in the 20th, and they weren’t even the time-travelers. Maybe because the book was written in the 1980’s and Helprin had no idea what life would be like as it approached the new millennium. Whatever the case, the book had an old-fashioned feel that felt comforting, but didn’t gel well with his descriptions of his future. Having been to New York in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I didn’t recognize the New York City he described as from being from that time, and felt that it still sounded like the New York of the 1800’s. Then again, maybe that’s because I never saw any Short Tails running around. Winter’s Tale is a great book, but only if you suspend all belief and just go with the flow. A nonsensical book with a beautiful message.
This is my first completed review for the Historical Fiction Challenge