by Tess Mize
This review was inspired by a list of movies coming out in 2014 that are based on books. Having seen a few trailers for the movies on the list, I saw Winter’s Tale and thought, “That seems like a nice, romantic story–perfect to review in time for Valentine’s Day.” Based on the movie trailer, I expected an easy read, with sentimentality to rival any Nicholas Sparks books and a dash of fantasy. What I got was a 768-page mammoth of a novel by Mark Helprin that proved a very challenging, and at times frustrating, exercise of the mind.
The novel falls firmly in the genre of magical realism and is set in a fictionalized version of New York City, at the turns of both the 20th century and the millennium. The plot doesn’t lend itself to a succinct summary. Those who try to summarize it usually focus on the storyline of Peter Lake (played by Colin Farrell in the upcoming film version). As the movie trailer depicts, Peter Lake falls in love with a terminally-ill girl named Beverly while attempting to burglarize her home. He also travels in time–and there’s a white horse that flies!
The comparisons between the trailer and the novel cease there. And, yes, while Peter Lake is one of the first characters mentioned and the story does a lot to recognize him as its protagonist, he is absent for at least the middle third of the book. In this time, a cast of no fewer than ten major characters are introduced and by the end of the novel, each has probably been given comparable page space to Peter Lake. For me, this muddied up the plot considerably and for awhile it seemed like every chapter could have been the opening to a new book altogether. 400 pages of that become pretty exhausting.
With ten major characters, all of whom have a unique and fascinating back-story, any reader should be able to find a “connection point” in this novel. The unfortunate thing is when you find yourself attached to one storyline; you can never get enough of it in Winter’s Tale. The novel’s greatest strength are its moments of brilliant writing that make the reader forget all his frustration at slogging through hundreds of pages of exposition that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Unfortunately, those moments are rare enough that I reached the end of the book and wondered if the journey had been worth it.
Perhaps my expectations of an easy read negatively affected my experience in reading Winter’s Tale, which is included on several “Best Of” lists for literature over the past 30 years. If you are a reader looking for a challenge to shake up your personal library, you may find what you seek in Winter’s Tale. But if your motivation in reading the novel is inspired by the upcoming film version, save yourself 768 pages and just go to the cinema.
Watch for a review of the movie soon.