Where to start talking about a book like Winter’s Tale? Almost more of a philosophical venture than a novel; it’s magic realism, fantasy, historical fiction, a little bit of cyber punk. There’s even time travel. Sort of.
Blurbs will tell you that Winter’s Tale is the story of Peter Lake, a thief who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter when breaking into their house in New York City. While this is definitely a key part of the book, it doesn’t really encompass the whole novel because Peter Lake isn’t even in other parts of the book and his love story with Beverly Penn really doesn’t take up much of the novel.
This is more a story about an idea. About winter, about a city that almost exists. Helprin delves into the lives of other characters, each of them connected, and into the tale of a magical, unbelievable winter, in a version of New York City that could almost be real. There’s a horse that can fly, a cloud wall that swallows people whole, and a village that you can’t get to except by accident.
The descriptions are rich and extensive. There are many, many descriptions of winter and snow and ice and they offer enough variance that they continue to feel fresh even as the novel progresses for seven hundred pages. The story also delves into the lives of several different characters, sometimes more than seems necessary considering some of them are pretty minor, but overall the stories are interesting and add to an overall depth of this fantastical world.
Much of the story is set in New York on the cusp of the millennium and it’s interesting to read a vision of what is now our past from the 1980s. New York is gritty and violent; not being personally familiar with the city I never quite got a handle on what was supposed to be lifelike and what was not and instead chose to see the portrayal as one of a mythical city. Personally, I felt like the story works better when you forget that it’s supposed to be set in New York. This clearly is not our world and the attempts to ground it in the familiar often felt jarring.
With a book this size, the question is often, “Was it worth it?” And I would say a tentative yes. There are enough truly beautiful sections of writing that made reading this novel worthwhile. The plot lacks a cohesiveness that perhaps a shorter novel could provide but Helprin is attempting to delve into ideas so large – justice and love being primary among them – that I couldn’t help but cut him some slack. Not every reader will feel the same way. If you enjoy some magic realism and extreme flights of fancy and don’t need a plot going from Point A to B to C then you might enjoy Winter’s Tale too.