Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (Book Review)

I don't know much about Mark Helprin, other then that I love his writing. And I don't intend to write a full-scale review of his book Winter's Tale, other than to explain why, appropriately enough, it was a magnificent read over my winter break.

At 673 pages, the story is a sprawling epic, filled with characters who seem to have eloquent epiphanies at every change of scenery. One of Helprin's earlier books, the story could have been pared down here and there (like his exquisite short stories), but the gigantic tapestry of a story is memorable, ambitious, and sometimes magical.

The scenes and characters are centered around a mythic rendering of New York as a kind of "golden city," and span a couple centuries. Read this book if you wonder how anyone could ever be "in love" with a city or have a fondness for the urban jungle.

Make no mistake, though--Winter's Tale is not historical fiction, it's fantasy in historical clothing. Helprin's imagination is profuse (and sometimes verbose) but I often found myself slowing to reread particular pages that captured beauty, warmth, love, and a bittersweet picture of triumph or loss. Here are some favorite quotes:

The shelf was filled with books that were hard to read, that could devastate and remake one’s soul, and that, when they were finished, had a kick like a mule.

No one ever said that you would live to see the repercussions of everything you do, or that you have guarantees, or that you are not obliged to wander in the dark, or that everything will be proved to you and neatly verified like something in science. Nothing is: at least nothing that is worthwhile. I didn’t bring you up only to move across sure ground. I didn’t teach you to think that everything must be within our control or understanding.

You can’t expect anyone to trust revelation if he hasn’t experienced it himself. Those who haven’t, know only reason. And since revelation is a thing apart, and cannot be accounted for reasonably, they will never believe you. This is the great division of the world, and always has been. When reason and revelation run together, why, then you have something, a great age. But, in the city, now, reason is predominant.

Nothing is random, nor will anything ever be, whether a long string of perfectly blue days that begin and end in golden dimness, the most seemingly chaotic political acts, the rise of a great city, the crystalline structure of a gem that has never seen the light, the distributions of fortune, what time the milkman gets up, the position of the electron, or the occurrence of one astonishingly frigid winter after another. Even electrons, supposedly the paragons of unpredictability, are tame and obsequious little creatures that rush around at the speed of light, going precisely where they are supposed to go.

I'd recommend Winter's Tale if you're a patient reader who really enjoys--savors, appreciates--well-used words. Also, an unrestrained imagination and a cold-weather holiday would help.

** According to my new three-star grading system, this book gets two stars--well worth your time--although it might deserve two and a half. If I were rating it on a bell curve, with my favorite books of all time scoring a 10 at the top (C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton...) Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale would get a 7 or 8.

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John said...

Hey, don't go mixing up scales on us, we were just getting used to the new star system, and now you're talking about a 10-point Lewis-Chesterton Bell Curve Scale (LCBCS). It's confusing. ;-)

Ariel said...

Sigh. Yeah, The General baited me with the 10-point bell curve system in an earlier comment, and I couldn't help myself.

Good thing the readers of this blog tend to be very sophisticated people, huh.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife