Winter’s Tale is an ethreal, mystical, and philosophical novel of New York stretching from the turn-of-the-century to the turn-of-the-millennium. Mark Helrin attempts to capture both the soul of a city and an age, while simultaneously reaching for philosophical and spiritual themes. His ambition is both staggering and inspiring and Helprin comes remarkably close to achieving that ambition. Nevertheless, there was something missing, that kept it from being the masterpiece it could have been.
The novel opens in a mythical version of Gilded Age New York. This is a wonderfully rendered setting filled with bridge-builders and thieves, nightclubs and mansions, sewers and cloud walls. This is the home of Peter Lake, an orphan who arrives in the city in a whicker basket and is raised by the clamdiggers of Bayonne Marsh. He becomes a mechanic, a thief, a burgler, and eventually a man unstuck in time, rescued by magical white horse. The early parts of the novel are chiefly concerned with Peter Lake—his rivalry with Pearly Soames the leader of the Short Tails Gang, and his passioante abiding love affair with Beverly Penn, a young woman dying of consumption who recieves visions. This part of the novel is engrossing, and fast-paced—a near-perfect balance of history and myth, magic and reality. When the novel shifts forward in time, however, Helprin’s grip on the narrative loosens slightly. Peter, Pearly, and Beverly largely drop out of the narative, although they will return in various gises.
The majority of the novel takes place at the turn of the millennium. Written in 1983, this was originally set in the near future. This adds adds a retrospective irony to the events and the setting, but doesn’t detract from its pleasures. This is as much a mythical and ethreal vision of New York, as the Gilded Age version. The cast of characters multiplies, though none of them are as well drawn as the original threesome, and their various triumphs, tragedies, and love stories can seem at times to be simply marking time until Peter Lake returns and the mysterious machinations of the seemingly immortal bridge builder, Jackson Mead, to stop time and bring back the dead reach fruition.
Winter’s Tale is a hugely ambitious novel with an expansive cast, a century of events, and an ever-changing city at its core. If it occasionally gets lost in his own ambition, and some narrative strands are left to fade, Mark Helprin has still created a magical, absorbing work that is deservedly considered one of the best novels of the late-20th century.