Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

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Then the bow orchestra began to play an apocalyptically beautiful canon, one of those pieces in which, surely, the composer simply transcribed what was given, and trembled in awe of the hand that was guiding him.

I am usually not impressed with love-at-first-sight stories, but Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale, contains two instances and he manages to make it work.  Much of this novel tends to break the rules – or at least my rules – but somehow it doesn’t matter, I kept reading and kept enjoying it.  Helprin’s lyrical writing style serves as a major reason for the beauty of this novel.  Continuously trying to figure out a category in which to place the novel also kept me thinking and wondering – activities that greatly enhance any reading experience.  Is it a fantasy novel?  Probably.  Is it historical?  Definitely.  Is it more? Yes.  Several aspects of the novel jumped out at me even more so than the intricate plot.

I have always been in awe of authors who can take a geographical location and practically turn it into a character, itself.  In Winter’s Tale, Helprin takes New York City and does just that.  New York’s power, harshness, cultures and wonder are portrayed in what is more than simply a setting.  I’ve always been fascinated with New York, but my only visit to the Big Apple occurred just this year in June.  I have to say based on my short visit, Helprin’s take on the city is spot on.  In a smaller, but not less important, manner, the fictional location of Lake of the Coheeries also takes on a life of its own.  Lake of the Coheeries, located near New York or perhaps not, stands almost frozen in time and I mean that literally – I think its always winter there but that’s not a huge surprise considering the book’s title.  I would describe the town as a quirky version of a Currier and Ives painting.

I don’t think I ever read a novel in which the season of the year takes center stage.  Just like Helprin’s New York, Winter is both harsh and wonderful.  The clear white freshness of the season mixes easily with the various characters and situations.  From sledding on a frozen river, spending Christmas in a cabin by the Lake or getting caught on a train during a blizzard, Winter, in all it’s glory, is the story’s continual backdrop.  I would rarely say that anyone would have to read a book at a particular time.  In my mind, books usually pull the reader into their own world regardless of the real world; however, I happened to read this novel during a few cold snowy December weeks in Northern Kentucky and being able to look out the window or actually go out and walk in the same type of weather described brilliantly in this novel made my reading experience that much better.  Interestingly enough, as I finished the book, the cold spell broke and now it’s like spring.  Coincidence?

Their throats tightened, and they shuddered the way one does when one discovers or reconfirms higher and purposeful forces brazenly and unconvincingly masquerading as coincidence.

Another “character” in the novel is Time itself.  It took a while but the novel’s narration revealed that the plot began around the turn of the Twentieth century while the majority of the story is set at the turn of the Twenty-First century or the Third Millenium.  I was about a third of the way through the book when I realized it was written in 1983 – in between these two time periods.  So most of the book took place in what at the time of its writing would be the future.  Those who lived through the Y2K era might find some parts of the book humorous.  But what I found most fascinating about Helprin’s portrayal of these time periods is that he seemed to concentrate on what was the same about them instead of what had changed.  Throughout most of my reading, I didn’t actually notice that the details of the plot took place about 100 years apart.  It was almost as though Time didn’t matter.  (hmmm…..)

I have not heard much about Mark Helprin; however, he has a number of other novels and short stories that I think have jumped close to the top of my To Be Read list.  If any of them are as good as Winter’s Tale, they will be worth reading.  Incidentally, a film version is scheduled to be released for Valentine’s Day of 2014.

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4 responses to “Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

  1. Great post, Dale. As you know, this book is on my list too. I like your comments on how the city, winter, and time itself are also characters. It’s great when a writer can pull that off.
    -Jay

    • Jay! I enjoyed it very much and I think you would, also. I can already tell that they’ve changed some of the plot and characters for the movie. But I’m not surprised. It is an intricate plot and I would think it’d be difficult to film exactly like the book.
      -Dale

  2. LOVED that book! And you’re absolutely right, there’s something about reading it on wintry days that enhance both the reading experience and, let’s face it, the wintry day itself. 🙂

    As for the movie adaptation, it’s in the hands of a first-time director, long-time screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (“Batman & Robin”, “A Beautiful Mind”). I’m not terribly optimistic about its chances, frankly. But I’ve been wrong before!

    • Julio, yes, it was pretty much perfect timing for reading the book, weather-wise.

      I’m not sure what to think about the movie version, either. From the list of characters on IMDB and the trailer, it looks like they may have taken out the character of Hardesty and just made Peter Lake a sort of link in time between Beverly and Virginia. That wouldn’t necessarily be bad for the movie, but I particularly enjoyed the relationships of the two couples in the book.

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