“No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn't bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn't teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding. Did I? For, if I did, I was wrong. If you won't take a chance, then the powers you refuse because you cannot explain them, will, as they say, make a monkey out of you.” - Mrs. Gamely to Virginia in Winter’s Tale
I just finished reading Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. I’m still not sure whether I liked this book or not. I’m not even sure if I understood it. I felt like there was a lot of symbolism and metaphors, some kind of deeper meanings, but what they were and what they meant eluded me. There were many times I thought I would just skip reading it and find something better instead, but something about the story still kept me hooked and I just had to know how it would end. (Some spoilers ahead so quit reading if you are planning to read this book!)
The book is neither sci-fi nor fantasy, and it’s not non-fictional prose either; and at the same time it’s all of them. The story takes place in fictional New York (which at the same time is and isn’t our New York) during two eras: it starts at the end of the 19th century and reaches Millennium by the end of the book. The fantasy/sci-fi aspect of the book displays an array of absurd and weird characters and events including the flying horse, the cloud wall, dwarf-like army of Short-Tails and almost super-human main character Peter Lake, who travels in time from the past to the present.
I’m not going to write a big book review but just point out some opinions I had. What I liked most about the book and the main reason I kept on reading was the beautiful language Helprin used. His choice of words was immaculate and unlike other authors I’ve ever read. The way he described people, their moods, the city, and especially winter time was absolutely enchanting, and he used metaphors I could never come up with myself, but at the same time were spot on. The book was at its best just at these moments, but every time I started to think that “wow, this is actually a really good book” something absurd happened and I was left baffled. The story got more and more confusing the further I read and Helprin also kept adding characters that didn’t really have anything new to bring to the storyline: they just appeared and disappeared without any real contribution to what was happening.
Still there was something about the book that made me read it all the way through. I just HAD to know how it would all end, what was the main point, what it all meant. I still have many questions that I feel the book failed to answer. A big part of the book followed an epic war between the two newspapers, The Sun and The Ghost, but that saga never reached its climax nor did it get a proper ending. The love story between Beverly and Peter Lake was another aspect that just happened without any real explanation (but I guess that’s how love is: it just happens) and it also ended as abruptly as it started. In one sentence Beverly was dead. The golden tray with the inscription Hardesty inherited from his father and brought from San Francisco to New York in his back pack, his only and most valuable possession was also forgotten midway through the book only to be mentioned again in the last few pages, but it had really nothing to do with the story. Peter Lake’s transition from the past to the present and modern society is acknowledged only by his yearning for horses but there is no confusion about the modern technology, fashion, electricity or anything. Asbury's brother fell into the sea and drowned, but that didn't seem to bother him or did he show any signs of sorrow or mourning. And Harry Penn never showed any emotion when returning to Lake of Coheeries and finding everybody slaughtered and dead, and then burning down the whole village including their family vacation home. There were many other occasions as well when things just happened without any explanation, emotion or consequence.
All in all, I have very mixed feelings about the book. I do think it was in its own way a very good book, but I’m not sure if it is something I would ever recommend if asked what to read next. It’s too weird. I don’t regret the last two months reading it but would rather regret NOT reading it. It certainly made me think and wonder, and as I told my friend about the book and my thoughts, she commented that it was a sign of a good book: not everything we read is meant to be easy or happy-happy-joy-joy.
“Give me a night by the fire, with a book in my hand, not that flickering rectangular son of a bitch that sits screaming in every living room in the land.” –Praeger de Pinto, Winter’s Tale
PS. I haven’t seen the movie, and while reading the book I kept wondering how they are ever going to translate it to the big screen. I read some reviews of the movie and understood that they have left most of the story out and just concentrated on the love story between Peter Lake and Beverly (which was just a tiny section of the book), so I guess the movie makers have totally missed the point. I don’t think I will watch the movie, or if I do, I will regard is an independent story and not an adaptation of this book.