Winter’s Tale

Mark Helprin

In 2006, a New York Times poll asked “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?, and Winter’s Tale incredibly received multiple votes. It’s not so strange to think that people would enjoy this lengthy novel based in New York City, stretching roughly a hundred years from the turn of the 20th century to an apocalyptic 2000: it just seems odd that multiple people would pick it as the best, above others, in the last 25 years.

Helprin’s prose is beautifully florid, but the narrative seems to serve only to create opportunities for him to create strings of lovely sentences rather than a convincing story. The first section of the book — where we meet the hero Peter Lake, his white horse Athansor, and the consumptive Beverly Penn who Peter falls in love with — is the most successful part of the book. And even there I found several turns of plot to be pretty unbelievable since conflict should be the presentation of an actual problem, not the rough idea of one that is quickly squashed because unlikely people fall in love or it turns out the horse can fly. As the story shifts to the future, it gets laden down with so many characters that about halfway through, Helprin is still introducing new people, most of whom the reader never gets to know in any depth. Yet they helpfully follow an absolutist formula in which the good people are all stunningly attractive and exceptionally intelligent and the bad people are stupid and ugly.

There are too many scenes that do nothing to move the plot forward, even in the last hundred pages when it’s not clear if everything is leading to some kind of “end time” situation. A string of spoilers: Somehow the entire city is on fire, and no one important dies as a result. Instead one character dies of an unknown illness. A mysterious village on a lake north of the Hudson River is supposedly impossible to get to, especially during a winter where the entire New York Harbor is frozen solid, yet some people seem to be able to just find a sleigh and go if they have one, pointless thing they need to do there. Though they might witness a terrible event that also seems to have no greater purpose.

At a certain point, it becomes entertaining how strange the story is. Tellingly, one of the later chapters is titled “Ex Machina,” which suggests perhaps Helprin was aware the book became an exercise in him repeatedly painting himself into corners and then fantastically bursting his way through the nearest wall. This epic mess will become a star-studded film, which hopefully should force an improvement on the crazy plot.