The Winter Garden
by Kristin Hannah
Published by: St. Martin’s Press
Publish Date: 2010, 2020
Genre(s): Fiction, Historical Fiction, Soviet Russia
HB&W Rating: 3
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Triggers: death of close family members, war
Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family apple orchard; the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, Meredith and Nina find themselves together again, standing alongside their cold, disapproving mother, Anya, who even now, offers no comfort to her daughters. As children, the only connection between them was the Russian fairy tale Anya sometimes told the girls at night. On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise from the women in his life: the fairy tale will be told one last time—and all the way to the end. Thus begins an unexpected journey into the truth of Anya’s life in war-torn Leningrad, more than five decades ago. Alternating between the past and present, Meredith and Nina will finally hear the singular, harrowing story of their mother’s life, and what they learn is a secret so terrible and terrifying that it will shake the very foundation of their family and change who they believe they are.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
“I think maybe love can just…dissolve.”
“No, it does not,” her mother said.
“So how do-“
“You hang on,” her mother said. “Until your hands are bleeding, and still you do not let go.”
Well, I am going to be honest, this isn’t my favorite Kristin Hannah book…not even close, but it’s also not my least favorite.
I spent the first half, yes, HALF, of this book absolutely hating the main female characters. I really just wanted to smack them all for their stubbornness, selfishness, and idiocy. I have found that Hannah’s older work tends to rub me the wrong way and I just can’t with them ::cough:: On Mystic Lake ::cough:: but this book was a bit more recent (first published in 2010) and I had heard so many good things about it that I wanted to give it a chance. When I posted a progress update on Goodreads saying this and stating that I was ready to DNF it, a friend told me to stick with it, so I did.
The second half of the book is where this story shines. THIS is the Kristin Hannah I’ve come to love. She writes about the horrors of the Siege of Leningrad in a way that only she can, and I found myself tearing up multiple times and unable to put the book down. As we learn more of Vera’s story and witness the atrocities the Soviets permitted on their own people, much less those afflicted by the advancing German army, we see a softening of Anya and her resolve to stay at arms length of her daughters in the present day. It is transportive storytelling as only Hannah can deliver.
The story of the Siege of Leningrad told as a fairy tale with the Black Knight, dragons pulling black carriages, goblins and the like was a beautiful homage to the Russian tradition of folklore and fairytales. Because we know that the fairy tale is based on a true story, we can see through the metaphors to the real story beneath. And the reason it is told to us this way, as revealed later, is such a realistic way of portraying the psychological effects of such trauma.
It is obvious how much better of a writer Hannah has become since her early days as she figures out what works and what doesn’t. I read in her interview at the end of this book that many of her female characters have similar characteristics to her own family members, and that makes sense because I could see similar behaviors between this pair of sisters as in Vianne and Isabelle from The Nightingale, and also parts of Loreda’s character from The Four Winds.
But if I loved the second half so much, why only 3 stars? Well, I hated the whole first half of this book. I hated it so much that I almost closed it, never to open it again. It was a stroke of luck that I had a couple different people warn me about this aspect of the book, allowing me to push through. The sisters just irritated the crap out of me. Meredith the martyr and Nina the selfish. I’m not sure I can really put what bothered me about them into words, but I’ll try.
Meredith has it all. While her relationship with her mom is strained, to put it lightly, she has a great relationship with her dad, she married her childhood sweetheart, who is still very obviously in love with her, and has two wonderful daughters. She suffers from the same burnout many family women do, a direct result of putting everyone else’s needs above her own. She does this to the point of shutting out her family and friends who try to help her, acting like a full on B with everyone. She’s tired of doing everything herself, but she’s too stubborn to let anyone else who offers to help her. She puts that on herself and takes it out on everyone around her. Also, I just couldn’t see the connection between the past Meredith who we are told was absolutely in love with her husband for years and years to this woman we see in the story who can’t communicate with him. The disconnect there was problematic in building Meredith’s character, in my opinion. Still, her story makes for a good cautionary tale for women reading this book.
She’d thought there would be time to unwind those choices, that if she put her children first for nineteen years, she could then shift course and be the one who mattered. As easy as changing lanes while driving. But it hadn’t been like that, not for her anyway. She’d lost too much of herself in parenthood to simply go back to who she’d been before.
Nina was a bit simpler to understand. She’s a runner. She runs from the things that scare her or force her to examine herself too closely. She runs from the people that ask more from her than she is willing or able to give. She’s used to traveling into war zones and seeing the absolute worst of humanity and capturing it on film, but while she’s able to evoke extreme emotions with her photography, when the going gets tough for her personally, she runs, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces for her. She’s in her own world, putting her own wants and desires ahead of any responsibilities she’s committed to, like taking pictures of the apple orchard for hours and neglecting to fix her mom any dinner. She is impulsive and impetuous and while eventually these characteristics are hailed as admirable at the end of the book, and they can be, in the first half of the book they are selfish and self-destructive.
“Settle down. Me? I don’t just love my career, I live for it. And really, marriage isn’t my thing. Why can’t we just say we’ll keep loving each other and travel until we need wheelchairs?”
Even a month ago, Meredith would have given Nina platitudes, told her that love was the only thing that mattered in life and that Nina was getting to an age where she should start a family, but she had learned a thing or two in the months since Dad’s death. Every choice changed the road you were on and it was too easy to end up going in the wrong direction. Sometimes, settling down was just plain settling. “I admire that about you, Neens. You have a passion and you follow it. You don’t bend for other people.”
I enjoyed the ending, mostly. It felt a bit truncated in parts, but I can’t say more without giving away spoilers. Suffice to say that the end of the fairy tale didn’t really connect dots very well, so I was a bit disappointed in that. In the end, I liked it, and if you rave about all of Kristin Hannah’s work, you’ll probably like this one too. If you don’t rave about ALL of her work, if you can make it past the first half of this book, there’s a decent story waiting to be told.
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