A review of Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Reviewed by Sara Hodon

Winter Garden
by Kristin Hannah
St Martin’s Press
Hardcover: 400 pages, February 2, 2010, ISBN-13: 978-0312364120

Does anyone truly know the true depth of the secrets that hide in the heart of every family? Can another person ever fully understand the extent of another person’s suffering? These are just a few questions at the center of Kristin Hannah’s latest release, Winter Garden.

Known for her complex characters and her sensitive exploration of the complicated relationships between women, in Winter Garden Hannah delves into the delicate bond between mothers and daughters. Set in the beautiful and remote Pacific Northwest, the novel focuses on the Whitson family—mother Anya and sisters Meredith and Nina—as they try to cope with the devastating loss of their beloved husband and father, Evan. Meredith and Nina, close as children, have grown apart as they entered adulthood. To add further tension, neither sister ever had any sort of relationship with their mother. Both girls promised their father to take care of their mother, and do their best to honor their promise as the story unfolds.

It’s no easy task, as all three women quickly discover. Meredith, the older, steadier sister who remained near her parents and virtually took over the management of the family’s orchard and fruit storage business, soon has her hands full with her mother, who starts acting bizarrely and saying strange things that Meredith can’t understand. She thinks her mother is headed for dementia or full-blown Alzheimer’s, but except for one disturbing episode that her mother’s doctor witnesses, no one else seems to agree—they chalk Anya’s behavior up to grief and mourning for her husband instead. Other than these few outbursts, Anya chooses to spend most of her time alone, either in her bedroom or in the special winter garden she’d planted. Soon, Meredith stops trying to understand her mother. Nina, the carefree, globe-trotting younger sister who flies into war zones regularly in her job as a magazine photographer, persists. She leaves home briefly, but something draws her back.

Winter Garden is a novel with many layers. Hannah uses a fanciful fairy tale as the link between a mother and her daughters—this is the key that will unlock the secrets that have been hiding in Nina and Meredith’s mother’s past for decades. There is a story that was her daughters’ particular favorite as children, although she never told them the whole story. Now as an adult, Nina is determined to hear the story through to the end. Meredith, curious despite herself, sides with her sister. Much like Scheherazade, Anya honors her daughter’s requests and tells them her story, a little each night. But it soon becomes less of a “fairy tale” and more of a horror story, as she introduces her daughter to a woman named Vera and the unspeakable things she and her family experienced during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. Anya uses the “story within a story” method just to distance herself from the horrible memories she finds herself sharing with her daughters.

Although the novel as a whole is quite solidly written, it’s clear that Hannah focused most of her energy on recounting Anya’s experiences during the war. She provides enough background on the characters of Nina and Meredith to get to know them, so that as readers we can make up our own minds as to who will get out sympathies, but I felt that Hannah could have spent a bit more time on Meredith’s troubled marriage to Jeff, her childhood sweetheart, or Nina’s on-again, off-again romance with fellow photographer Danny. I found Anya’s tale to be much more compelling than the plot set in the present time; perhaps that was Hannah’s intention. It seems that Anya’s coldness toward her daughters all stemmed from her hardships in the war; she seemed to warm towards them very quickly, for not having much of a relationship with them in over thirty years. Still, Hannah does an admirable job of showing just what some women have had to endure, and how they are still able to survive, despite incredible circumstances.

On January 4th, Winter Garden will be published in trade paperback. An excerpt of the book can be found at: http://www.kristinhannah.com/content/books_winter_garden.php?id=Excerpt

Other resources for fans include:

A discussion guide for Winter Garden (note that this contains spoilers).

Book groups can sign up for a chance to have Kristin speak to them via speakerphone.

Discussion themes and ideas for Winter Garden.

Readers can watch Kristin discuss Winter Garden.

Readers can “like” Kristin’s Facebook page.

About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com.

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