"Winter Garden," by Kristin Hannah, is a surprising book. I say this as someone who has been deeply impressed by Ms. Hannah's writing before -- her "When Lightning Strikes" is on my short list of favorite novels to re-read often, and whenever I pick that book up, I always find something new to appreciate. So I was well aware of how vividly Ms. Hannah envisions history ("When Lightning Strikes" is a paranormal set, for the most part, in 1896), and of how fine her use of language, culture, mores, tone, and description. All of those are again on display in "Winter Garden," a more traditional straight-up family history and memoir, along with the themes of sacrifice, sisterhood, families, and secrets.
At the start of "Winter Garden," we meet two pre-teen sisters, Meredith and Nina Whitson. We see them briefly act in a play, a story their mother has told them that seems to be of a worthy, yet poor, young woman, her sister, and the prince who rescues her. But the play angers and upsets their mother, Anya, who cannot tell them why; this makes them vow never to try to please their mother again.
Then we see them as full-fledged adults -- Meredith, the nurturer, someone who takes on difficult jobs around the house and at her job without praise or fanfare and is running herself into the ground, and Nina, the prize-winning and world-renowned photojournalist, who takes on difficult jobs in various countries photographing people (mostly in war zones) and is running herself into the ground in a wholly different way. Meredith is married, with two children in college, but her marriage is in trouble because she can't communicate; Nina is in a long-term relationship but can't admit she loves her boyfriend because she isn't able to communicate. Both place their problems in communication solely on their cold, quiet mother Anya's shoulders, and both idolize their father, Evan -- a bluff, hearty, good-humored man who brings out the best in his wife and daughters. Neither daughter knows why Evan married Anya, nor why Anya seems to hate them.
But the story of Evan and Anya rests squarely on the shoulders of a deeper, richer and more profound love story of another, younger woman -- a story neither Nina nor Meredith knows, but Evan knows and accepts. This is the reason why Evan, on his deathbed, asks both his daughters to please try to get Anya to tell them the rest of the story about the prince, the worthy young woman and her sister -- all of it. And this promise changes everything . . . .
Because so very much of "Winter Garden" relies heavily on the story Anya tells her daughters in fits and starts, I am unable to give you too much information because it would spoil your reading experience. I will say, however, that this novel is not to be missed; Anya's far more than a cold, reserved woman, and her love story with Evan is only a small part of what she's endured over time and throughout her life. And once her daughters figure this out, their view of their mother -- as well as their view of themselves -- changes. Forever.
I believe this is a story that women, their daughters, their friends, and most men will enjoy; it is a story of hope, fear, death, friendship, sacrifice, honor, and history. It is also about fate, second chances, and personal redemption; it is a profoundly satisfying reading experience.
Just a shade under five stars (I rounded up for Amazon's purposes), highly recommended.
...but don't give up on it. I'm glad I listened to that advice from another reviewer as I might have put it down myself. The first half lays the groundwork of the familial relationships between the main characters. Sometimes the reader will get impatient with the flawed characters, as it seems drawn out at times, therefore 4-1/2 stars from me. It is not a happy or feel good type of read. It is sad, heartbreaking, and captivating.
There have been many novels lately that flip back and forth between the past and the present, many revolving around wartime. Personally I like that, it is like reading two novels in one. We have seen this in Shanghai Girls, on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Whiskey Island, and countless others. This one gives us an intimate look at Leningrad survivors in the Russian/German war. It varies in the fact that the past is presented as a fairy tale by the Russian mother of two American born daughters. All three are strong-willed and feeling incomplete and do not relate well to each other. As adults, grief unites them and a death-bed promise forces them to face and come to know each other as well as themselves.
It starts as the two young daughters Meredith and Nina fail time and again in seeking affection from their cold, distant mother. When they were young their mother would tell them this fairy tale at night, practically the only communication they had between them at the time. It mesmerized them, leaving them wanting more, but the story telling stopped suddenly and does not continue until their adulthood when circumstances brings about the completion of the tale. In actuality the "fairy tale" is the story of their mother's young life in Russia. This tale is the highlight of this novel, and as we move into the second half, this is where the reader gets drawn in as we get more of the story of young Anya and all we've wondered about is brought to light. The author did a wonderful job of evoking every emotion from a mothers and a daughters perspective. The description of war-torn Leningrad is something I won't easily forget. It is atrocious how often it happened in wartime that foreign armies separated children from their parents, and how unfathomly emotional that separation had to be for parent and child...just one aspect of war. I cannot even imagine a hunger so bad, or cold that is so harsh that the children could hardly open their frozen eyelids without bleeding.... and the strength required to get through it all. Most did not. My heart broke and real tears streamed down my face at this mothers plight to save her children, from the hunger, the cold, the war... reminding us once again that war is the ugliest atrocity that mankind has brought upon itself in its quest for power.
In the present day story, the visit to Alaska by the three women, the look at Sitka and the history there, and the ending of the novel was extremely satisfying. Even the title is perfect, Winter Garden. It is one of those novels that you keep thinking about long after you close the book. Hannah has matured as a novelist. Her characters are real, the emotions powerful, the writing captivating. Highly recommended.
on February 11, 2011
If I didn't know better I would swear two different authors wrote this book. The sections set in current times were boring and I really didn't like any of the characters. I love Russian history so decided to skip to the fairytale parts of the book and low and behold here was a really good story! The writing styles were so different...why couldn't the entire book be written this way? I just skimmed through the parts in current times. And I'm sorry, the idea that because the mother suffered so much in Russia gave her the excuse to emotionally abuse her daughters and the supposedly loving father allowed it to go on just didn't work for me. If you want to read an incredible love story set during World War II and the siege of Leningrad...read The Bronze Horseman Trilogy by Paulina Simons. These books will simply sweep you off your feet and break your heart...incredible story written by a Russian who lived in Soviet Russia and whose grandparents lived through the siege. On my list of all time favorites!
Kirstin Hannah is one of my most favorite authors ever. I really enjoy her books and especially her character development. This book, though, left me feeling cold in the first 35-40% of the book. The characters just didn't seem real to me and the family dynamics seemed contrived. I had a very hard time getting into the book. However, I enjoyed the latter part of the book and the story sucked me in during the second half. Then, at the end of the book, the way things wrapped up, I just wanted to say, "Oh, puhleezzeeee!" It seemed very contrived and unbelievable.
Usually, if I don't get into a book in the first 20 pages, I put it down and move on to the next book. There are just too many good books to try to keep reading a bad one. This book was never BAD, but it is hard to get into and parts of it aren't believable. In between those parts, though, are some beautifully written passages about the characters in the book. The relationship between the sisters was especially fun to watch develop.
on February 2, 2010
I was honored to "discover" the fantastic writing of Kristin Hannah when I read Firefly Lane and True Colors. So I can not express to you how happy I was to receive this newest offering in the mail.
In this superb book, we are brought into the lives of three fantastic women. On the banks of the Columbia River, we find ourselves in a huge house that looks like something out of a fairytale, sitting in an ice-covered apple orchard named Belye Nochi. Inside the four walls of the amazing home we meet a twelve-year-old girl named Meredith Whitson. Meredith wants only one thing in life, just as her sister Nina does, to make their mother show some type of love and affection toward them. The only kindness their mother shows them is when she tells them fairy tales in the evening before they go to sleep. One of their mother's favorite tales is the story of a young peasant girl who falls in love with a prince. Meredith decides to stage a play one Christmas Eve where she, her friend, and her sister will become the characters of the fairy-tale Mom loves so much. As they take the "living-room stage" to begin, their mother turns pale and begins to scream at them. This is the last straw. That night, as Meredith and Nina are filled with anger and defeat, they realize they'll never be close to their mother no matter how hard they try; and their mother's distant - seemingly, uncaring - relationship with them is the driving force in what they both will become.
Meredith marries her friend from the play - Jeff - and they have two children. Meredith works super-hard at the apple orchard for her beloved father, making it into the greatest place on earth. She is the responsible one, standing by her father's side and taking care of everyone she knows. But she is constantly sad. She's tried very hard to be the best wife and mother, but the solitude she feels in her soul is breaking her marriage apart. Nina becomes a wild child. Her life is spent as a photo-journalist for magazines like The National Geographic. Wherever there is war, famine, pestilence - Nina runs to that place and snaps her photos of human atrocities. Nina, unlike her sister, is constantly running - from love; from life - throwing herself into harm's way in order to avoid the past.
When their father grows old, he begs his two beloved daughters to get to know their mother - to give her a chance. The daughter's make that solemn vow and then find themselves back in the house within the apple orchard, coercing their cold-hearted mother into revealing who she really is and why she has hated them all her life.
Anya, their mother, is a woman who spends all her time sitting outdoors in her winter garden. The garden is a small, cold place; the icicles and frost-covered bench makes the scene almost as fragile as their mother - who is suffering from a heartbreaking past that she doesn't know how to talk about. She has blamed herself for years for the life she left behind in Russia when she married their father and moved to the States - finding peace at last in the arms of a man who loved her.
Together, the three women sit and begin to open up about their lives, and the writing locks the reader in and carries them away. This was not only a fantastic read, but as the writer reveals the full story of the fairytale centering around the peasant and the prince, she unveils the power and strength that Anya holds deep inside her. This is a woman who has lived in a constant state of regret and remorse, unable to unveil her secrets to her daughters.
To me, personally, winter was always the time of death. I lived in a remote town that was usually covered nine months out of the year in snow, with dark clouds filling the sky as far as the eye could see. There was too much time to sit and think, instead of going forth in the world and experiencing life. Most, like myself, spent their younger years planning an escape - as Nina, the younger sister in this book, does. I identified with every character, and I found myself caring deeply for Anya, the cold woman who had suffered in silence.
Kristin Hannah is a master at what makes and breaks the human heart. If it were up to me, she'd have to write a book per month so that all readers could experience her exquisite words time and time again.
Amy Lignor, Bookpleasures Reviewer
I have read many of Kristin Hannah's previous books, and I was very excited to receive this advanced publisher's edition. I loved Firefly Summer and True Colors and I was uplifted by both of these books. This book is the total opposite of these in that it is quite depressing and bleak for the first half. I gave this book 4 stars but would have given it a 3-1/2 if I could.
Winter Garden took quite a while for me to really get lost in. I was able to put it down several times, which is not common when I am reading a book I really like. It finally picked up for me about halfway through, and then it became impossible to put down. However, if it weren't for my previous knowledge of this author and my enjoyment of her other books, I may have given up before it got going for me.
The book centers on two sisters who are total opposites; one stayed in the same town as her parents and eventually took over the family orchard business. The other sister became a globe trotting, award winning photojournalist, never able to form a permanent relationship with anything other than her work.
The sisters have a doting father and a mother as cold as the picture on this book cover. What was a little odd to me was that while the father was portrayed as the loving, supportive parent in the household, how could he stand for the way his wife/their mother, treated his children? This characterization just did not ring true to me.
As I suspected, there was more going on involving this mother's psyche, involving an era that was presented as something never discussed in history, but which I felt I had heard before and was familiar to me.
The ending was very powerful and explained a lot of the challenges the sisters had growing up in this dysfunctional family.
I did feel that I would have liked to know more about the sister who was the photographer, and more of a back story on the other sister's husband and children.
Ultimately, this book is about who we become based on certain basic facts about our lives, and what happens to our self identity if one or more of these basic facts are revealed as fiction.
Unless you are a huge Kristen Hannah fan or if you are on a tight budget, I would say to wait until the book comes out in PB or is available at your local library.
on December 12, 2010
My feelings are mixed about this book. I agree that there wasn't enough character development in the main plot. All we know is that Meredith and Nina have a loving father and a cruelly detached, distant mother who won't talk or even look at her daughters, from birth. Questions arise here, even after finishing the book. I realize that Evan loved Anya, but why was he okay with her treatment of his children? Why did Anya even have children with Evan? It seems to me that the premise of this book is that to love is to be narcissistic, and to allow your own feelings to be the only ones that matter, regardless of how they hurt others, with the exception of Meredith, and Nina was getting there. This was true of Evan, who loved his wife so much that he allowed her to emotionally scar and damage his children. Anya took all the responsibility for WWII and its consequences on herself, it was all about her, she didn't have complete control over life, death, war and nature, therefore she was a "terrible person," etc, etc, and wallowed in her self pity for the rest of her life, again with her daughters being on the losing end. I am pretty sure Anya was not the only woman to suffer in wartime, and lose her loved ones. I am pretty sure millions of people have done so, and manage somehow to go on with their lives and love their families. These people apparently didn't exist in Anya's reality. I could see that ending coming and I knew it was going to make me angry, at Anya's complete selfishness. I will say that the parallel WWII story was well written, and the despair from man's inhumanity to man is apparent. Perverse as it is, I think Leo's naming his bunny "Comrade Floppy" is just adorable.
I really liked the trip to Alaska and the descriptions of setting. I thought that it was really odd that Meredith spent so much time paying bills..like every day, both at her own home and at her mother's. Every day? I also thought calling her college daughters like twice a day almost was way over the top!
I had absolutely no problem understanding why Meredith and Nina were the way they were, one trying all of her life to be good enough, and the other running away from the possibility of getting hurt. That happens when children are raised without love and nurturing. Again, I don't feel that their father was as nurturing as presented when his main concern was always his wife, and not his children,living his own fantasy, even telling them as adults that they needed to try harder to get along with her. As for the end, the book was based on a fairy tale, so why not have such an ending?
on February 25, 2010
I agree with many other reviewers that the beginning of this book is somewhat slow and dull. I almost quit reading it, as some others said they did. But, I am happy that I did read it to the end. The first half could have been much more interesting (to me it just wasn't), but as a mom and daughter myself, this book did leave me with some tears, some laughter and believing it was worth it to have gotten through the start. I recommend it to those who are willing to get through the start and get through to the deeper stuff...
on May 23, 2012
Found it quite a brisk read but very melodramatic and overly sentimental. Characters also seemed unidimensional - meredith, always organized, meticulous, Nina, the artistic one who never wants to settle, the mother who is always cold and distant to her 2 daughters, and suddenly in Alaska everything comes together, Meredith decides she loves her husband and wants to get back, Nina decides she loves her boyfriend, and their Mom softens almost overnight towards her daughters, AND finds her long lost first born who she'd given up for dead for decade, and is suddenly full of hugs and kisses and caresses. Seemed way too pat - like the writer wanted to tie up all loose ends before signing off.
on February 23, 2010
I love all of Kristen Hannah's books, but this is by far the most gripping....something I will remember for a long, long time. I thought I had figured out the story about half way through, but I was completely surprised at how it evolved. Kristen, you are truly gifted...thank you for your creation! Words can not describe how this book has affected my heart and soul. And so I will leave it at that. A beautiful work by a talented writer.