From London to New Bohemia, Winterson frames her adaptation of Shakespeare’s "The Winter’s Tale" around an abandoned baby and a terrible accident in which two “hoods” beat a man to the ground. In London, Leo keeps his intense sexual jealousy to himself. Gradually recovering from the 2008 financial crisis, he goes into a jealous rage against his wife, MiMi. It is obvious that Leo is mistaken in his actions, and the result is tragic. He also loves his best childhood from Xeno, a man who needs understanding because he’s existentially alone. Only Leo’s long-standing secretary, Pauline, seems to understand him. Pauline tells MiMi that her husband is all swagger and poise. MiMi tells Pauline that he’s possessive and
has been acting crazy for weeks, “blind to his own world.” MiMi is convinced that Leo is pushing her away because he’s seeing someone else.
As Leo’s jealousy grows, he takes actions to defend his misconceptions of his "abused" honor that in fact abuse all those who have loved him. Unable to control himself, Leo continues to pursue his folly even when evidence grows that he is wrong. To his great regret, these impulsive acts cost him dearly. Xeno becomes Leo’s first target. Leo is convinced that Xeno is the father of MiMi’s child, even though Xeno himself proves solitary and introverted, with an enthusiasm for Leo that Leo mistakes for betrayal. MiMi, meanwhile, is unable to avoid her fate. Ill, guilty, and distracted, Leo forces her to give up her newborn daughter, giving it to his gardener, Tony Gonzales, and asking him to take it to Xeno in the United States. Leo can’t raise another child, not when his best friend and his best man at his wedding has betrayed him.
Winterson brings the story full circle sixteen years later, after the abandoned baby named Perdita is found by Shep, who watched the TV news a week or so after Tony Gonzales’s homicide and was able to put two and two together. The news tells of the hunt for a baby that had traveled with Tony from London. Gone missing are the half a million dollars and a baby girl known only as “Baby M.” While Shep and his son, Clo, use the money to open a piano bar, traced inside Perdita are the parents she would never know and a life that has vanished. Eventually Zel, Xeno's
son, falls in love with Perdita, forcing Perdita to reconnect with her natural father in a route that will take them both into “unpathed waters and undreamed shores.”
Gone is Winterson’s trademark soaring, lyrical prose. Instead she writes with a hard-as-nails modernity, which strafes through the original play scene by scene. Leo realizes that he is in the throes of petty jealousy, but with each passing day his need grows more insatiable, whether intently tracking MiMi and Leo’s movements via a security camera attached to his office computer or drinking himself into a neurotic, paranoid frenzy. Surrounded by his considerable wealth, Leo is unmoved by MiMi’s tortured ministrations. Leo believes what he wants to believe, truth be cursed. Meanwhile, young Perdita steps into the unknown. Plagued by questions about her past, she waits for Leo to reconnect with her again as London’s night descends and the sun rises in a denouement that contains a dream and a game easily enjoyed by all in a surprisingly bittersweet redemption.
Winterson captures the essence of the original play where time passes, sometimes in a rush and sometimes more slowly. The novel is about illusion, the loss and pain of love and the impossibility of sex. Like the famous playwright, Winterson juxtaposes romantic idylls with the personal tragedies surrounding her characters and triumphs in exploring the differences between perception and reality, superficiality versus excess, strength of character versus fear and weakness.
Like the play, Winterson recognizes that sometimes the miracle of forgiveness is tied together in a world of possible futures.
This was obviously a very personal book for Winterson. It not only explores her affection for the Bard but also her take on a disillusioned man who sees many of his
dreams turn into disaster. The world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one
woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. Past and present combine, time halted by
Leo’s stubbornness and impulsivity. Xeno becomes trapped in a whirlpool of drink and seduction, his attraction to MiMi from their time together in Paris only momentarily quenched.