Book 267: Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin

Helprin, Mark - Winter's TaleAfter nearly a month of trekking through, I’ve FINALLY finished this book. Coming in at 748 pages, this is 250 pages longer than in other book I’ve read this year and it definitely felt like it was longer! I did take a bit of time out to read two additional book during the time I read this, but they were much-needed reprieves. I of course decided to read this after seeing a trailer for the film adaptation released this past February.

I can’t say this was a bad book, because it was excellently written, but I can say it was too damn long. Most striking, however, I chose the perfect winter to read it. This winter has definitely felt as if it was one of the epic endless winter’s Helprin wrote about throughout this novel: the constant snow, the frozen water and the plunging temperatures. The only thing missing from my winter was the romance and the magic!

Aside from the length of the novel, I struggled with the reality of the novel. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if this novel was a historical fiction novel or a fantasy novel and apparently it was both. I knew there were fantasy elements of it, but I wasn’t sure how much of it should have been fantastical or real and for some reason I found it incredibly challenging!

I found the love story the most moving part of the novel and was incredibly sad that it wasn’t more of a focus throughout the entire novel. Technically it was an undercurrent and there were brief mentions to it throughout, but it was what drove the story for me. I found Pearly Soames and the Shortails and the Baymen of the Bayonne Marsh fascinating and would love to read short stories or more stories about those groups, but I felt they got lost in this epic tome.

Where Helprin really drew me in, aside from the beauty of his writing and the story, were his amazing observations of people and their interactions, like

“When they are absorbed in thought, certain people become so paralyzed by the play (or circus) that takes place invisibly before their eyes or in their hearts, that they command a silence that others give them without resentment.” (413-14)

“Lonely people have enthusiasms which cannot always be explained. When something strikes them as funny, the intensity and length of their laughter mirrors the depths of their loneliness, and they are capable of laughing like hyenas.” (562)

This shows just a hint of the beautiful language Helprin uses. There are many more in the additional quotes section. As usual, Goodreads pissed me off in that the few negative reviews I read really tore Helprin apart because of his flowery language, but personally I felt if fit perfectly in this type of fantastical historical fiction! The first quote, as most of the quotes I select do, struck me because of how much I identify with it. I know there are times when I gaze into the distance and catch myself and then I’ll notice a friend keeping an eye on me and non-verbally checking in to make sure I’m alright because they know that I do that.

Recommendation: I would probably say pass. It was a beautiful story and incredibly well written, but being as long as it is, it’s such a time commitment that there are better options out there. I doubt I’ll check more of Halperin’s writings out unless I read or listen to an amazing review.

Opening Line: “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.”

Closing Line: “At least until there are new lakes in the clouds that open upon living cities as yet unknown, and perhaps forever, that is a question which you must answer within your own heart.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from Winter’s Tale
“Both were women in love with men who did not exist, and they shared the resigned sadness that comes from too much dreaming and longing. They were imagining that when they were alone they were observed in their graces and beauties (in Jayga’s case these were to be found in the eye of the beholder) by a man who stood somewhere, perhaps on a platform in the air, invisibly. And when they did whatever they did, sewing, or playing the piano, or fixing their hair in front of a mirror, they did so with tender reference to his invisible presence, which they loved almost as if it were real.” (114-15)

“The rich died, too, disappointing all those who thought that somehow they didn’t. Peter Lake had no illusions about mortality. He knew that it made everyone perfectly equal, and that the treasures of the earth were movement, courage, laughter, and love. The wealthy could not buy these things. On the contrary, they were for the taking.” (138)

“Then occurred a rare thing about which men and women sometimes dream. They carried on a full conversation in complete silence, discerning feelings, plans, exclamations, jokes, opinions, laughter, and dreams—rapidly, silently, inexplicably. Their eyes and faces were as mobile as changing light upon a mottled sandbar when clear water agitates above it.” (148)

“Magic, she knew, was all about time, and could stop it and hold it for the inquisitive eye to look through as if through cold and splendid ice.” (241)

“He was glad it was winter, when love and ambition flare in the cold.” (337)

“For she believed that only through love can one feel the terrible pain of time, and then make it completely still.” (432)

“To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been.” (522)

“They know that lies and truth are very close, and that something beautiful rests in between.” (558)


9 thoughts on “Book 267: Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin”

  1. I have this one on my shelf at home — I read pretty fast, so all the positives in your review are outweighing the negatives for me. Thanks for the thoughtful review! And yeah, this Boston winter has been more endless than usual.


  2. I’m reading this right now for a book club at my local library. I went into it with no prior knowledge about the book. So when I first started reading, I thought, ‘Wait…what the hell is going on here? What? Wait…what?’ Hahaha!

    Then I did some Googling and learned that Winter’s Tale is magical realism. Okay. Now it makes more sense. This is like an alternate NYC. Now I get it.

    It took me about 100 pages to really get into it, but now I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m about halfway through it.


    1. I’m with you, it took me a way too long to realize wtf was going on and then I also found out that it was magical realism (apparently one of the best examples from the United States according to some prestigious newspaper). I thoroughly enjoyed the language of it, just wasn’t so impressed with a few parts, let me know when you finish!

      Also, this is a COLOSSAL book for a book group?!?!


      1. Yeah, it is colossal for a book group. We’re actually discussing it for two months. We discussed the first half this week, and we’re discussing the second half at our next meeting.


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