Mar 21, 2008

Winter's Tale

by Mark Helprin

I don't know how this book ended up on my TBR list. It is a vast, sprawling fantasy of New York City. The main character is Peter Lake, an ignorant yokel who stumbles into the City in the 1800s and quickly falls into an organized group of thieves and petty criminals. One day while breaking into a house he falls in love with a rich girl (one of the most preposterous scenes in the book), who has a terminal illness.

Winter's Tale is full of surreal incidents and picturesque language to the point of ridiculousness. I was enjoying it for the sheer fun and astonishment of the word play until I reached page 200 where Peter Lake dropped out of sight and the already meandering plot took off in a direction I couldn't recognize. Then I did something I've never done before. I skipped about 150 pages and began reading again, when Peter Lake (like Rip Van Winkle) reappears after half a century has gone by. Having seriously lost interest in the storyline, I skimmed the last fourth of the book, reading only those parts that dealt with Peter Lake's search for his legendary white horse that could leap four city blocks and aspired to fly in the sky. Something about the style of this book reminded me a lot of The Tin Drum, or even One Hundred Years of Solitude. If anyone's managed to read and like Winter's Tale, I'd love to hear why!

Abandoned                      Published: 1983, pp 688


  1. It's considered "magical realism" -- same classification as One Hundred Years of Solitude. I think you have to either be in the right mood or know what you're getting into, when you delve into magical realism. It can be a bit like walking into someone else's dream.

  2. Magical realism. I was going to call it urban fantasy but I wasn't sure which category it fit better. Not quite my cup of tea; if I'd known I probably wouldn't have begun reading it.

  3. I agree with bookfool that it sounds like the kind of book you need to be in the right mood for. Your description of it actually reminded me of a book I read recently, John Crowley's "Little, Big". The story wanders seemingly aimlessly sometimes, and I could very well see how it would frustrate some readers. I guess that what captured my interest was (other than the writing) the magical mood of the whole thing, which is a thing I have a soft spot for.

  4. How disappointing. I was really interested in a fantasy set in NYC, but this one doesn't sound like the one for me. I don't want to work that hard to follow a story. Thanks for the review.

  5. Curiously enough, in the first half of the book the descriptions of the city enthralled me. For the first time I could see how someone could regard a city as beautiful (I'm not a city person myself). But, I've read in other accounts that this portrait of New York is so fantasized it's unrealistic.

  6. I read it and I loved it, for both the magical realism elements, the history and the industrialisation of New York City. I'm not saying I understood all of it, but I loved the ride. It felt like an hommage to the city.
    But the blurb for the book was entirely misleading so it absolutely was not the story I was expecting.


Comments are screened due to spam.