Winter’s Tale

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
I didn’t enjoy this fantasy about time travel and New York City as much as I expected to. The parts I enjoyed most were the narrator’s voice, the elaborate descriptions, the funny moments, and a few utopian ideas and parable-like passages. Some of the descriptions and events were so over-the-top hyperbolic that it was hard to take them seriously. The idiocy of the villains, including a mob boss who wants to steal a shipload of gold just because he likes the color, and a newspaper owner whose headlines are basically gibberish, was humorous but made them laughable as obstacles to the heroes.  I started to classify the story as a myth because of the larger-than-life quality of the hero and his horse, but one character, Jesse Honey, an insane mountaineer with kooky ideas about traveling by catapult, made me wonder if it’s more of a tall tale.
Some of the things I didn’t like about the story came under the umbrella of “It’s too easy.” I’m not particularly moved by stories of love at first sight, which seems to oversimplify the decisions involved in a relationship. I also don’t like it when characters are motivated or led by divine inspiration. For example, Virginia finds her way to the city and a job at the newspaper through reenacting detailed dreams. Wouldn’t it be nice if life-altering decisions were that easy, if we could all have dreams that tell us that everything will be ok? Life isn’t like that, though, and a story with less struggle and conflict than real life has is less interesting than real life, and therefore not worth the time it takes to read it (and here there’s a considerable time investment involved).
I also didn’t like that it seemed like the rules for the fantastic elements of the story were unclear to me. Maybe I wasn’t reading close enough, but I couldn’t understand why certain characters were able to time travel, or get narratively convenient amnesia, or live unusually long lives, or mysteriously reappear (after being presumed dead). The mystical future that the characters are working toward remains hidden from the reader at the end. If there’s something I’m missing about this book, I’d be glad to have someone explain to me why they thought it was so great.

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