Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bookish Thoughts: Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

A great city is nothing more than a portrait of itself, and yet when all is said and done, its arsenals of scenes and images are part of a deeply moving plan. ~ Opening from Winter's Tale



Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
Mariner Books, 2005
Fantasy; 768 pgs

From the Publisher: 
New York City is subsumed in arctic winds, dark nights, and white lights, its life unfolds, for it is an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built, and nothing exists that can check its vitality. One night in winter, Peter Lake, orphan and master-mechanic, attempts to rob a fortress-like mansion on the Upper West Side.  
Though he thinks the house is empty, the daughter of the house is home. Thus begins the love between Peter Lake, a middle-aged Irish burglar, and Beverly Penn, a young girl, who is dying.  
 Peter Lake, a simple, uneducated man, because of a love that, at first he does not fully understand, is driven to stop time and bring back the dead. His great struggle, in a city ever alight with its own energy and besieged by unprecedented winters, is one of the most beautiful and extraordinary stories of American literature.
I am sorely tempted to say this is an impossible book to review.  It doesn't help that I have waited nearly a month after reading the book to finally sit down and write my review (and it's taken me over two more months to rework and post it).  This book is not what I expected.  The description above does not really describe what this book is about.  It is barely the tip of the iceberg.  Winter's Tale is a love story on one hand, and also an adventure tale on another.  It is the story about life, about good versus evil, about balance, about justice, and above all hope.  It sounds wonderful doesn't it?

I so wanted to love this book.  I read the novel at the perfect time--as a good part of the U.S. was buried in snow.  The author, Mark Helprin, brought New York City to life.  Anyone can tell how much he must love the city (I admit there were times I wondered if the real love story in the novel involved the city itself).  My favorite parts of the book were not the descriptions of the setting, however; although, the author did a good job of making the setting a living and breathing character.  I was enamored by the characters--and not just the elusive Peter Lake and the brief appearance of Beverly Penn.  I was actually more taken with other, sometimes more prominent characters in the book.  That of Virginia and Hardesty, characters that appear later in time (and later in the book), long past Beverly and Peter's time.  Their journeys into the City especially captivated me.  I longed to join them and experience life along side them.  Fortunately, for a short time, I was able to.

Of all the characters, though, my favorite has to be Athansor, the white horse, who the reader is introduced to on the very first page of the novel.  It's clear from the start there is something special about Athansor, and as the story unfolds, his story is both joyous and sad.  He's such a strong and resilient animal.  He is a symbol of hope, in many ways.  I longed for news of him when the story was focused elsewhere and I ate up every moment he appeared. 

There was much I did not understand about this novel.  I felt like there was a deeper meaning I was missing the entire time I read.  I also had a hard time getting a feel for exactly what this book was supposed to be about exactly.  The greatest love story of all time as was advertised?  I didn't come away from the book with that feeling at all.  Could it be the book was simply about a man's love for a woman across time, even after death?  A book about justice and good versus evil?  Maybe, but even that story line seemed incomplete to me.  I wondered at times if this book was about the circle of life--how life repeats itself.  Or about how good and bad are necessary in order to keep balance.  A book about magic and miracles?  There was definitely some of both.

 The book's ending left me with mixed feelings.  There were many questions answered, some in unexpected ways.  And in other instances, some of the threads were left dangling and were more ambiguous.  I can live with both.  I just wish there had been more.  It was a bit anticlimactic in places I thought should have been given more attention.

I was eager to see the movie, hoping it might answer some of the questions I had upon completion of the book. Fortunately, the movie did have a few answers.  The movie is a mere shadow of the book.  So much of what I loved about the book was cut from the movie.  Entire characters and their histories were missing.  And not just one of two.  It really is a very different type of story, I think, the one in the movie as compared to the book.  And yet, I found that the movie did confirm some of my assumptions that I felt were a little murky in the book. To be more specific might be too much of a spoiler.

As poorly reviews as the movie was, I actually liked it to some degree.  It did seem as if it were two different movies put together--but that can be said about the book too, given all the stories told there.  I thought the early portions of the movie, the scenes with Beverly and Peter, were the better ones.  The second half of the movie seemed to come out of nowhere and the tie ins which are so clear in the book are practically nonexistent in the movie. Still, it was a sentimental story, one that can pull at the heart strings.

Winter's Tale is well loved by many and I can see why.  It isn't a book I loved, however much I tried.  This is the type of book I wish I had read as part of a book club or buddy read.  I wonder if I would have gotten more from it in that sort of setting.

Rating:   (Fair +)

You can learn more about Mark Helprin and his books on the author's website

Source: I purchased a copy of this e-book with my own hard earned money.


© 2014, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

24 comments:

  1. I would have to agree with everything you said. Writing was great, descriptions were great...the man is a storyteller. But he was so pompous and used all these crazy descriptions and big words, I didn't know what his point was sometimes. I felt like I was missing something. Plus he was ALL OVER THE PLACE. He'd focus on one character for a long time, then sort of drop them. Then there was the magical stuff...flying over the whole world seeing all the dead people? What the hell? I was pretty annoyed I'd spent so much time reading this thing. I never did see the movie...maybe Netflix.

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    1. Sandy - You definitely aren't alone in your thoughts about the book. I'm not sure you should see the movie, Sandy. I don't think you'd like it.

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  2. I saw the movie with a friend and neither of us liked it so I'll skip the book. Kudos to you for giving it a go!

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  3. I always have issues when books are really overhyped! My contrary nature will very rarely let me like them as much as I should! Though it doesn't sound like you need a contrary nature for this book not to live up to the hype. I think I'll give this one a miss.

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    1. Katherine - I wanted to like this one more than I did. I know people who loved it, and I hoped to love it too. Oh well. Not every book is for everyone, right?

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  4. Oh, I loved it. Not to say that I always knew what was going on, but the writing was delicious. I'm not usually a fan of magical realism, but I read this when it was first published, and I loved it. Later, I read A Soldier of the Great War, but wasn't impressed.

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    1. Jenclair - It was very beautifully written, I agree.

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  5. Books as complex as this one seems to be are so hard to turn into movies. They so often leave things out that are the keys to understanding the things that they did include.

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    1. Lisa - As I was reading the novel, I had a hard time imagining how they would do a good job of translating it to film, but I was hopeful. The outcome was so different--it was barely a shadow of the book.

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  6. I want to read this one but oh gosh, that many pages. I'm just not into big books lately. Not good given that I joined the chunkster challenge! ha. I wouldn't mind seeing the movie too but I think I should probably try to read this first.

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    1. Iliana - The size is daunting, isn't it? It took me a while to read, and while I didn't particularly love the book, I am still glad I read it.

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  7. You're a better woman than I - I couldn't finish this one. And it's too bad, because I really enjoyed his short story collection The Pacific.

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    1. Carrie - At least you tried. :-) I will have to read his short story collection. Maybe I will like it better.

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  8. Just from your review it sounds incredibly confusing. And it also sounds like it should have a big meaning, but if that gets lost in the confusion or never manages to be clear then that's a pity. I love time travel books and so forth, so it appeals to me for that, but given what you said along with the three stars I think I'd want to sample it first.

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    1. Charlie - I really felt like I was missing some big over-reaching meaning. If you do decide to give it a try, I would be curious to know what you think.

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  9. Perhaps drawn more to the cover than the synopsis and then I read your review. Wow, this sounds like a confusing read, I find it incredibly frustrating when I can't quite put my finger on something, when I'm convinced that a story has a deeper meaning that I'm just not getting.

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    1. Tracy - Isn't the cover nice? I like it too. It was frustrating, especially in the end. I kept hoping as I read it would all become clear.

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  10. I remember when this book came out, and how many people loved it. Yet even then I wasn't sure I wanted to read it. Your review was really interesting. It sounds like there was a lot to the book. I wonder if a little too much? It's an annoying feeling when you read a book that everyone else seems to love, and it's not quite it for you, isn't it? You are such a good reader though, Wendy, that I would think that the book just wasn't a good fit for you. Remember my debacle with Broken Harbour last year! lol

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    1. Susan - I do think there was too much to the book, which probably didn't help.

      You are so kind. Thank you. I sometimes take it more personally than I should when I don't quite get a book or feel like I'm missing something. You are right though, I think this book just wasn't for me.

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  11. I wanted to see the film too but the trailer did make it look like there was just too much going on at once. The novel now does not seem like one I'd enjoy either. Wow, 768 pages is a long novel to devote time to if you're not loving it. Like you mention, maybe it's better a buddy or group read.
    Fantastic commentary as usual.

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    1. Naida - Even though I liked parts of the movie, I can't bring myself to recommend it.

      I kept with the book because I did enjoy parts of it and was so hopeful I would get more from it in the end. It seemed like one of those books in which you reach the end and all of a sudden it all makes sense. Not so much in this case.

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  12. I had no idea what his was about before I saw the movie and admit I liked it. It certainly wasn't great and it was confusing, but I did like the romantic feel of it.

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    1. Stacy - I liked parts of the movie, especially the romantic feel to it. I think you should maybe give the book a try then--I love the little connections between the characters---Virginia and Peter, included.

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