An emotional telling
of a family and its secrets
St. Martin's Griffin, 2011
BY ANNIE PHILBRICK
With each new book, Kristin Hannah's writing matures. "Winter Garden" is clear evidence of this as she writes the story of a family with too many secrets and who really don't know each other.
Set in Washington State, the Whitson family runs a successful apple orchard. Meredith, the eldest daughter at 40 years and with an empty nest, flounders in her lonely life and a crumbling marriage while throwing herself into running the family business. Nina is the younger sister, a well-traveled photojournalist who thrives in war-torn areas and has a passionate yet uncommitted relationship with Danny, an Irish photojournalist. She returns home after their father's death to help with Anya, their cold and distant Russian mother.
Anya's life is as closed up as a locked room, only letting some hints out about whom she really is while telling old Russian fairy tales. On his deathbed, Evan asks his daughters to get to know their mother by asking her to finish telling a fairy tale. In the meantime, Meredith is convinced her mother is crazy, muttering to herself, sitting outside in the cold winter garden, hoarding food and talking about boiling leather belts for soup.
Without asking Nina, Meredith puts her mother into a nursing home, all neat and tidy, and continues to run the orchard business while her marriage crumbles around her. When Nina returns, she is horrified to find her mother in such a depressing state and takes her home to Beliye Nochi, or their family home called White Nights, styled after a Russian "dacha," or summer cottage. Nina wants to honor their father's wish that the daughters get to know their mother and take care of her.
It is through the telling of the fairy tale and the discovery of an old photograph that Nina and Meredith begin to understand who their mother is and the life she left in Russia. She is not really Anya, but Vera, the daughter of a dissident poet during the time of Stalin and the siege of Leningrad.
Emotionally packed toward the end, "Winter Garden" is a read you won't be able to put down. Although the ending is a bit contrived, Hannah's writing still packs a wallop. And if you are at all interested in Russia and her history, this is a fascinating read. One cannot imagine how anyone survived the 900-day siege of Leningrad by the Germans. If you like "Winter Garden," try "The Bronze Horseman" and "Tatiana and Alexander" by Paulina Simons.
Annie Philbrick is co-owner of Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic.