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"I may not know how to fly but I know how to read and that's almost the same thing."-- Gregory Maguire, Out of Oz

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin


“Peter Lake had no illusions about mortality. He knew that it made everyone perfectly equal, and that the treasures of the earth were movement, courage, laughter, and love. The wealthy could not buy these things. On the contrary, they were for the taking.”

Winter’s Tale starts with as a poetic an image any fairy-tale could manage: a white horse traveling through scenic New York City on perfectly snow covered dawn. This is a story of winter romance, magic and miracles, good vs. evil, spanning the industrial age to modern times, as the characters search for reason and justice in the world.

My initial reaction to the book? If you liked Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or any of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, you’ll probably love this story. The painstaking attention to surreal descriptions and the weaving of the fantastic into a canvas as bleak as a city filled with violence and sickness…Well, it dragged me right down to a time where a person could believe anything was possible… Instead of this digital age where a thousand voices across the internet can assure you it simply isn’t.

My second reaction to this book? This is a story best reviewed by introducing the characters; as the plot is very character driven it would otherwise be impossible to explain the book without spoiling the story completely.

The story starts with Athansor, although he won’t be known by that name until later. He’s a great white stallion, bigger than any draft, grander than any warhorse, with a jump so big bystanders think he flies. Obviously, Athansor is no ordinary horse. He chooses to help Peter Lake, tying His Holy Horseyness to the mortal coil--sort of.

Peter Lake is an Irish immigrant who finds himself frequently on the sad side of abandonment. His parents left him as an infant when they were turned away from Ellis Island and his second family rejects him, when they believe he’s old enough to fend for himself. Constantly losing those he trusts, Peter Lake must struggle to choose the right course of action and he grows up to become a master mechanic… He also becomes a professional burglar; hunted by a vicious gangster, Pearly Soames. Tired of running, he takes his white horse to the Penn estate, ready for one last score.

He just wants to rob the house, but his plan is foiled by Beverly Penn. Beverly Penn is home alone while her family has left for their vacation house at The Lake of the Coheeries. Dying of tuberculosis, she’s an heiress who will never spend her fortune; she sleeps on the roof to keep the fever away, counting stars and dreaming up deities in math equations. Peter and Beverly seem destined for one another and Beverly won’t abandon Peter Lake.

Then enter a character that is actually another setting. The Lake of the Coheeries, where the Penn vacation house is located. The Lake of the Coheeries is basically a fairyland of sorts… Like any exotic local in Pirate’s of the Caribbean, The Lake of the Coheeries is a place that can best be found by honest accident or by those who already know its location. Usually on a moonlit winter night. And of course it won’t be on any map, so Beverly must show Peter the way if he’s to meet her family.

Here is where I leave you, if only to avoid spoilers, to talk about a different set of characters who play an integral part in NYC and whose lives seem tied to Athansor and Peter. First the ominous architect Jackson Mead--though you feel free to draw your own conclusions-- I believe is Lucifer in disguise and he' absolutely obsessed with building bridges. His Henchmen, Reverend Mootfowl (who just happened to be Peter Lake’s mentor) and Cecil Mature (Peter’s most loyal friend). And of course Pearly Soames, hell bent on killing Peter. As Peter falls through time and space swept up in winter magic; these four morally flawed characters haunt his footsteps. Whoever they are, they undeniably reinforce the notion that Peter Lake, despite his flaws, is definitely the Good Guy.

Skipping forward to the future, we get new characters who will inevitably find themselves tied to a man who’s supposed to be dead. Hardesty Marrata and Virginia Gamely. Hardesty could have been an heir, but he gave away a vast fortune to travel the world in search of a “perfectly just city” and instead he found New York City and Virginia Gamely. Virginia Gamely, Coheeries-born, is a passionate journalist with a son from a failed marriage and a big heart. What they have in common, they were hired almost instantly by Harry Penn.

Ancient Harry Penn is Beverly’s younger brother who having survived the breakdown of his family and serving his country, has returned to NYC to run two flourishing newspapers. He offers Hardesty and Virginia employment; and will later, unknowingly employ Peter Lake, tying several generations together as the city begins to burn.

The plot is a character-journey-story to support themes that are probably open to interpretation depending on the reader. (To  me this is the most Fitzgerald-y.) For me, it’s about the possibility of miracles being most possible when you can believe that they exist; with religious undertones that are enhanced by several deity like characters. Second, I believe it’s a round about way of saying love conquers all and that good will triumph over evil, even if good isn’t as good as good could be…After all, part of being human is being flawed. Nobody’s perfect, not even if you live forever. Thirdly, I think Hardesty and Virginia subplots are there to remind people to embrace risk; had either one of them embraced the easy choices, neither would have met.

I give this book a 4/5 because I prefer a more concrete ending than I received. And while the ending wasn't my preference, I understood why the story was left open... since I did draw my own conclusions about what happened and why. So I say it again. This is a fantastic read if you like magic, great characters, flower descriptions, and a plot that encourages the reader to think and believe...If you're looking for something a bit more "modern" or "easy" (there's nothing wrong with that) this probably isn't the book for you.

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