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Winter’s Tale confuses, intrigues, but is literary fiction through and through

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, a book review by Kendyl Bryant of The Adaptation Podcast

Winter's Tale coverAfter I finished all 750 pages (or more accurately the 27-hour audiobook) of Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, I had some very mixed emotions. Accomplishment was certainly one, exhaustion another, but I’d be lying if I said the strongest wasn’t confusion. Winter’s Tale isn’t just long; it’s also complicated with at least ten main characters, lengthy descriptions and some fairly advanced symbolism.

But all this doesn’t mean it’s not worth the time and thought that it takes to read it. It just means that the reader should be willing to expend some energy in their trek through this marsh of literary fiction and magical realism.

The story begins in the early 1900s in a New York City that is slightly more fantastical than our own and spans to the turn of the millennium. During that time, Helprin introduces a slew of interconnected characters that are intelligent, amusing and just a little wacky. Each character’s story is equally beautiful and interesting and while sometimes it can be hard to keep up with how the complex pieces fit together, they are each nestled between Helprin’s flowing descriptive passages and interwoven with similar themes.

Winter’s Tale is a marvelously well-written novel, but it is also not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s definitely geared toward the literary fiction crowd. Personally, I think having someone to discuss it with makes it a more enjoyable read. When I finished it, I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked or understood it. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying and unclear. And I was a little disappointed at the dominance of the magical element in it. It felt a bit overdone.

But when I talked about it afterwards with a friend who’d also read the novel, I found myself rethinking my feelings. My friend had been a little confused as well, but in our discussion something clicked into place. I remembered how much I genuinely liked the majority of the characters and how enjoyable it was to read their individual stories. The themes of rebuilding or rebirth and of finding one’s place started to stand out more and I realized where they fit in the overall arc. While there were still things that I was confused about and characters I didn’t understand, I really enjoyed discussing the details. I even found myself wanting to reread the book in the hopes of a better perspective the second time around.

To some, that might not sound like a glowing review, but for a lot of people the joy of reading is partly in getting to discuss it with others. This novel is the perfect specimen for that attitude, and despite my original feelings, I would very much recommend it as a good read. But I would also recommend that you take a friend or two along for the ride.


The Adaptation Podcast recently covered Winter’s Tale the novel and the 2014 film. You can listen to the in-depth discussion (containing spoilers) here.

@RiverRamPress #RiverRamPress #bookreview #TheAdaptationPodcast

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