I decided to kick off my February reading by tackling one of the longer books left on my Classics Club list, Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. This novel was published in 1983, making it one of the youngest books in my challenge. I do think that considering any book out of the 1980's as a classic is pushing the definition a little bit, but when I was researching classic fantasy novels, this one kept coming up. My husband had previously read most of it and enjoyed it, plus we already owned it, so I figured I'd give it a shot.
Winter's Tale is a magical realism novel set in New York City. The plot is very difficult to describe as it spans across at least 100 years and deals with multiple characters and very intellectual concepts. It starts, however, in the late 1800s with a thief and master mechanic named Peter Lake. As the story begins, Peter tries to rob the home of a wealthy family living in the city. He believes the residence to be empty, but in reality, the eldest daughter of the family, a young woman named Beverly Penn, is inside. When Beverly and Peter stumble across each other, they fall deeply in love. They know that their happiness can't last, because Beverly is dying. However, their short, tragic romance kicks off an intricate story that spans a century and comes to include time travel, magic, and even a flying horse.
It's tough to summarize the story much more than that as it follows a long and winding path through plot events both improbable and impossible. I don't mean that in an entirely negative way either, this is just one of those stories that defies a simple explanation. One of my students saw this book sticking out of my bag and asked me what it was about and I literally had no idea how to answer that question in a way that an 8th grader could understand. The best explanation I could think of was, "It's an epic love story set in a magical version of New York." That doesn't really capture how complex and deep this work is though. The book is about 750 pages long and full of whimsy, lofty ideas, and philosophy. Is it actually entertaining to read though?
That answer is going to vary wildly from reader to reader.
For me, this was not a particularly fun read. I fully recognize that the writing was beautiful and the work was very ambitious. I enjoyed a lot of the characters and I thought the bits of magic that floated through the text were lyrical and intriguing. There were parts that I really liked and thought were clever and fun. Where I struggled however, was with putting all of these elements together to understand the overall story. I don't think I ever fully understood the central narrative here. Things would frequently happen in this novel and I would have no idea why or where those things would lead. Of course, I know that the hazy plot is intentional. Helprin is writing in a style that requires readers to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. I've tried several books structured like this over the years, and I've never been particularly satisfied by any of them. I like connections, explanations, and rules. I like fully understanding a plot. A Winter's Tale is just not that kind of book, and 750 pages of a style you don't particularly like is not very rewarding to get through.
I know that the elements I didn't like within this novel are what some people like the most about it. Readers that love wordy, beautiful prose and vague plot points imbued with a sense of wonder will undoubtedly fall in love with this story. I do believe that it is probably a masterpiece in its style. It's just not for me. I enjoyed it at times, but most of the time I was just reading to finish. I settled on giving it three stars overall, because while I know it's well-written, it wasn't a good fit for me. I'm glad to have experienced it once though, and I'm even gladder to be able to cross it off my Classics Club list.