Bart's Reviews > Winter's Tale

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
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Jul 08, 08

Recommended to Bart by: Peggy Noonan
Recommended for: Anyone who thinks Pynchon and Tolstoy, mixed together, might be delicious
Read in July, 2008

If it’s possible for a novel to establish its author as a good writer but a poor novelist, Winter’s Tale might be the book to do it. Helprin has great talent for description, good talent for language, remedial talent for storytelling and almost nothing that resembles perspective.

There’s a passage somewhere between pages 600 and 700 where Helprin goes hog wild in his description of the opening shot of a billiards game. The spheres are crashing and the green felt is cowering and the angles are all aligning – and it comes pretty close to being squirmingly bad, a moment when one feels a bit embarrassed for the author. What makes it important to an analysis of Helprin’s work is that it shows that for Helprin words are really the only important elements of writing; that is, the ideas they express are accidental results of the sounds they make and the ephemeral effects they have.

There is a pretty rich story here, though, sometimes. Peter Lake is a likable character, and his romance with Beverly Penn is an intriguing and touching one.

But then we put Mr. Lake away for a long time – more than half this enormous novel – and describe and describe and describe. The rest of the characters, however cleverly named, all look the same. There are some of Thomas Pynchon’s lamentable tricks – including a set of employees named after books in an encyclopedia set – and for a while Helprin seems to dabble in hyper realism. And those detours add up to approximately 350 pages (a full novel, in other words) that a reader regrets suffering through by the end.

Ah, the end. One begins hoping, round about page 500, that the end will explain all the numbing detail and description one has endured and is yet to endure. But the end does nothing of the sort. Helprin can’t seem to figure out how to end the novel, actually. Is the novel about Peter Lake? is it about a giant white horse? is it about a villainous gang? is it about New York City? Yes, yes, yes! No, not quite.

The novel is about love. In fact, the epilogue of this massive work finds the author helpfully instructing the reader to look inside his heart to figure out what the novel is about. For those readers who are annoyed by Tolstoy’s philosophy-of-history lecture at the end of War and Peace, Helprin holds a familiar treat. After almost 800 pages, he feels compelled to do a little summarizing. He even asks the reader if she remembers some of the characters from a month or so back. And the reader responds, understandably aloud, “No, I don’t!”

Were this novel 400 pages long, and concerned only with the Peter Lake and Beverly Penn characters, it would be recommendable. But at its actual length, finally, it asks too much of the reader and reciprocates too little.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Silas Hallahan Great review. I have to disagree about the billiards part though. That was actually my favorite part of the novel. Everything else though, is spot on.


Lukuoli "If it’s possible for a novel to establish its author as a good writer but a poor novelist, Winter’s Tale might be the book to do it." Well put! Good writer, poor novelist. Helprin's writing in Winter's Tale is so intricate and beautiful but Winter's Tale was not a novel, not without a plot.


Moses Operandi I loved the book, but this is an excellent review. Goodreads needs more like it.


message 4: by Cyn (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cyn Well written review


Sherry Thanks. Your review was right on. I actually quoted you in my review.


Kellie Dearman Must agree. I am reading this for a book club, and am finding it excruciating.


message 7: by Stefanie (new) - added it

Stefanie Kline I think you have helped me make the decision to not read this at this time. Great review. Thank you so much.


message 8: by Rebecca (new) - added it

Rebecca I wish I could share your review. Though I am still reading and not quite fixed in my opinion, this review has somehow soothed me and allowed me to go on reading in spite of my waning enthusiasm.


David Green You sir, took the words right out of my mouth.


message 10: by Kat (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kat Perfect review. So perfect that I temporarily suspended my lurking habits just to say so.


message 11: by Sonia (new)

Sonia Love your review. I was having the odd experience of both loving and hating this book at the same time, and now I realize why. It's the writer vs. novelist thing for sure.

I just ended pt. 1 and decided to stop there. It was a beautiful ending to a pretty story and I fear that continuing to read (sans Peter Lake) will ruin the magic.

Plus, life is too short.


Marianne Thank you for this insightful review. You described my love/hate relationship with this novel superbly. Well written.


Diane I agree with your review and many of the comments here. This book has sumptuous detail but an almost never-ending story. I am almost done and have asked myself innumerable times "what is the author's point?" I am close enough to the end that I will persevere but I am finding it a frustration.


Rebecca Himler I share all of your sentiments and concerns for Winter's Tale. I actually put the book down half way through and read two other books to break up the "hyper realism" you mentioned. Beautifully written, but I'm embarrassed to say it took me months to wade through. Thanks for the great review.


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