Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter's Tale

by Mark Helprin

I first read this in the 80s shortly after it first came out. I rarely re-read books but this one really stuck with me all these years and I am glad that I finally re-read it. On a second reading it certainly did not disappoint! And while I remembered some sections vividly, there was a lot that I did not remember which made for an interesting read.

Winter's Tale is very difficult to describe. Superficially the story is about a burglar who falls in love with a young dying heiress when he breaks into her mansion. But that is just what gets the story going. In my mind the main character is the mythical New York City that Helprin creates which seems to always be enfolded in winter and threatened by a cloud wall. We experience almost a century of the city from the days of sailing ships, horse drawn carriages and cobblestone streets to the modernization of electric lights, mighty bridges and printing presses. There is a small upstate town which is not on any map and usually cannot be found, a white horse that can seemingly fly, and an epic struggle to build bridges.

The writing is spectacular and I could vividly picture flying up the frozen Hudson river in a sleigh under piles of fur, hiding in the lighted constellation ceiling of Grand Central Station or skulking through the sewers with the Short Tails gang of Five Points. While this is definitely fantasy it is not elf and dragon sort of fantasy but rather a look at turn of the century New York as a wondrous and romanticized place that you wish it had been. And you don't have to have ever been to New York or even like New York to enjoy this book. One of my favorite books of all time. Read it!

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