Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

winter's tale

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The trailer for the movie starring Colin Farrell brought me to this book, and I’m so thankful it did. It might be my favorite read of the year.

I wish I could write a review that did this book justice, but I do not possess the intellect for it. In fact, there were times when the book simply baffled me, and yet I loved it. I love it.

Let me start by saying Winter’s Tale is not merely a love story. Oh, there is a love story in it, yes, and that is what Hollywood has decided to make the movie out of. They had to shave it down to that because Winter’s Tale would never fit in a two hour block otherwise.  It might make a good mini-series, except most of the large concepts in the book are the types that could never be reduced to images that a camera could capture and reflect on a screen.

So what is this novel? It has a grand theme that mostly focuses on searching for or achieving justice. Not the kind dealt out in courts or in street gang violence or in karma. It’s a justice that belongs to the Universe as a sentient being who might be God. It is a justice that spans the whole of the existence of mankind. It is also about cycles of time and the balance of nature. It’s also about trying to overcome that.  It takes a very fat volume to explain, so I’m not going to summarize it all here. As I said, I’m not entirely sure I have the brains for it.

The book jacket will tell you the story is about Peter Lake – an orphan, master mechanic, and master second-story man who attempts to rob a mansion on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Though he thinks the house is empty, there is a young woman at home. Her name is Beverly Penn, daughter of the newspaper magnate, Isaac Penn.

Beverly has tuberculosis and she is slowly dying. Her only wish is to love and be loved. When Peter Lake breaks into her house, their attraction is instant and their love affair is torrid. Because of a love that at first he cannot fully understand, Peter Lake, a simple and uneducated man, will be driven to stop time and bring back the dead.

But truly, Peter Lake, while being a central figure, is a needle and thread in a much larger tapestry of a story that is interwoven with that of Hardesty Marratta, the son of a self-made multi-millionaire who leaves his fortune behind to fulfill his father’s wish that he seek the “perfectly just city,” and the enigmatic industrialist Jackson Mead, who possibly holds the secret to time and death.

The following is a list of things one should keep in mind while reading this book. I wish I had this list at the start to help me hold everything together until the end:

  1. When it is said that Beverly Penn is a visionary, believe it and hold that thought in mind as much as possible, even after she dies.
  2. Jackson Mead is more important than he seems. Remember him.
  3. If you’ve read Norse mythology (or seen Marvel’s Thor), you’re going to know the implications of a Rainbow Bridge. If not, then you’ll learn the meaning of it eventually, and it’s fabulous and tragic.
  4. The ultimate goal of this book is not a love affair. Not entirely. It’s to achieve the “Just City” and the “Golden Age”.  Love helps drive that purpose. Don’t forget that.
  5. Remember what Beverly says about animals when she describes having seen the universe, then apply that to Athransor, Peter Lake’s beloved white horse.

In retrospect I could almost remove the humans and replace them with Hobbits or Elves or something. Instead of Middle Earth, it’s Manhattan, and instead of Valinor its the Lake of the Coheeries. Maybe Peter Lake is Frodo Baggins in a way, given a purpose that is so much bigger than him  and he’s almost too simple to understand it, yet his simplicity is exactly why fate finds him the ideal hero. But unlike LOTR, Winter’s Tale will give you nothing as definitive as a ring of power to destroy and a Mount Doom to get to. If you need definitive endings, this is not the book for you.

I’ve never read anything so difficult to explain but which fills me with such awe and wonder. Do be clear, however, that I love it. I want you to read it, and I want you to love it, too.

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