Sunday, May 4, 2014

"Winter's Tale" by Mark Helprin

Things to know before choosing to read Winter's Tale:
1. It's 750 pages long.
2. It's nothing like the movie trailer. It's nothing like the opposite of the movie trailer.
3. It's not fantasy--maybe magical realism, in its least attractive sense.
4. Probably not worth it.

So, my history in choosing to read and finish this book: Like most people, I'd seen the trailer for the movie version with Colin Farrel and Sybil from Downton Abbey. The movie looked terrible--another cheesy period love story. But, then, I read a post by Neil Gaiman (whom I admire) where he bemoaned the romance-focused trailer and highly praised the actual movie and the novel on which the film is based. I still didn't want to see the movie, but Gaiman said I'd like the story if I liked fantasy, so I reserved the book.

Then the book arrived. And it was enormous. And I generally avoid enormous books because I feel that life is too short not to read as widely as I can. Nonetheless, I decided to feel out the reviews--which were largely terrible. But, those terrible reviews seemed to all come from book club members whose club chose the book based on the trailer. Feeling all superior and high-minded, I took their criticism as assurance that I (of quality literary tastes), would love the novel.

Where to begin? Well, if you did choose Winter's Tale for the movie trailer, you'll certainly be disappointed. The "romance" between Peter Lake and Beverly Penn last perhaps fifty pages early on. Then Beverly dies and is gone. Peter Lake jumps back in at the end. And those fifty pages are pretty dull in terms of emotional romance. It's love at first sight. Beverly's a weirdo who likes the cold but is petulant like a child. She has consumption because apparently consumption is the most romantic way to die ever (and all those Lurlene McDaniel books I read as a kid thought it was cancer. Pshaw.). She says weird things about constellations and animals, but unless I missed something, her rambling is meaningless.

What else? Well, there's Hardesty with his gold plate and a supreme mission from his father--which gets lost and forgotten most of the book. He falls in love (at first sight! what a coincidence!) with Virginia. Also, there's Asbury and Christiana, who shake it up and fall in love at first hearing of voice. They all work for a big New York City newspaper.

The last third of the book takes place in present day (well, leading up to the millennium), but the setting feels indistinguishable from the first third, which takes place a hundred years earlier. For example, people don't seem to use phones or computers. Hell, a character runs for mayor and wins by talking about how awesome the winter is.

Speaking of which, the entire book is largely a love story for a) the winter and b) New York City. So if you don't think both of these are the end-all-be-all, be wary. Because apparently in this world (so I guess the book really is fantasy) when we get crazy terrible winters, everyone loves to go outside and ice skate and eat warm food and take sleigh rides (I mean, literally, a family goes and gets a horse-drawn sleigh. In NYC in 1999.).

There's also a kinda magical white horse. And an immortal (?) guy who wants to build a bridge out of light? Did I miss the section where any of this made sense?

With the possible exception of Peter Lake, there's no emotional connection to any of the characters. And the plot feels utterly random and meandering, with characters and time periods all feeling essentially the same.

That's not to say there aren't some enjoyable sections, if you can ignore all the above. Reading about Peter Lake and his fight against Pearly Soames and his gang was largely interesting. I liked the mysterious Lake of the Coheeries and its characterization. There were certainly individual pieces that could have worked.

But, overall, I hated it. Maybe I missed the meaning because I skimmed a lot, just wanting to finish. I shouldn't have been so stubborn, and I should have just given up, but I didn't, maybe just so I could write a rambling crticism.

It's true that it's far, far easier to condemn than praise. Condemning is easy. But, hell, the book was long enough that I feel sufficiently justified. :)

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