Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Winter’s Tale is set in a surreal version of New York City and its surroundings. Many of the places are real, and the story begins in the early 1900’s. In this book, however, Helprin lets his penchant for exaggeration run free. The winters are longer and colder, the buildings higher, and the world generally more glorious than in real life. The city is sometimes encircled by an impenetrable cloud wall that could be a gateway to another universe.
Into this world sails the infant Peter Lake, Moses-like, to grow and find his way. Peter becomes a mechanic, tending the machines of the city, and later becomes a thief who breaks into the home and the heart of Beverly Penn, who becomes his true love. She is terminally ill and soon dies. Peter later escapes death with the help of his flying white horse and disappears into the depths of the sky. He reappears, nearly a century and many pages later, to help shepherd the city through the death of one century and the birth of another at the turn of the year 2000.
The city itself is a major character in the novel, with its teeming humanity, mechanical heartbeat, and seasonal moods. The story opens in the early 1900’s with the dawn of the mechanical age; the highest achievements of human art and science are the magnificent bridges linking Manhattan with the rest of the world. The book ends with the new millennium, and the bridge builders also return from the neverland of time to attempt a new technology, a bridge made of light. The bridge’s architect “would not say where this bridge will lead, preferring to leave that to my imagination—as I will leave it to yours.”
This book is often considered a failure for its convoluted plot and lack of a coherent theme. Indeed, the author seems to have overreached himself, attempting a transcendental, visionary tale of death, rebirth, love, and justice. Many elaborate side stories and subplots seem to clutter the novel. The problem, if it is one, is that all the digressions and meaningless details are fascinating. Indeed, one of the reader’s chief pleasures is following the twists and turns of Helprin’s prodigious imagination. The beauty of the language is also reason enough to read the book, with its bits of sly humor and startling similes on every page.