Book Review: “Winter Garden” by Kristin Hannah

Twelve-year-old Meredith Whitson and her sister, Nina don’t know what they did to make their mother, Anya, hate them. Well, maybe hate is too strong a word, but Meredith and Nina believe she definitely doesn’t love them. In fact, other than knowing their mother is Russian, everything about her is a mystery–the girls don’t even know how old she is.

The only thing that connects Meredith and Nina to their mother is the fairy tale she tells them about a peasant girl and a handsome prince that takes place in Leningrad, where Anya grew up. In an attempt to earn her mother’s love, Meredith writes and performs a play based on the tale. Anya is not amused. In fact, she is angry. So angry that her tightly clenched fist shatters the glass of wine she is holding and cuts her hand, and she angrily berates Meredith for her effort.

That’s it, Meredith decides, I’m done caring what she thinks. She can’t imagine what her father sees in her mother, but somehow he loves her and makes excuses for the cold personality that makes her keep her daughters distant.

Nearly thirty years later, their father suffers a heart attack from which he won’t recover. Before he dies, he makes Meredith promise she will take care of Anya. But his final request is a strange one: Make your mother finish the fairy tale–all the way to the end.

Anya refuses. Instead, she sits in what she calls her “winter garden.” It’s a place she often goes to, especially in the bitter cold winters. The garden seems like a refuge for her, although neither of the girls can understand why. Since her husband’s death she has taken to spending much of her time there. She talks to herself, uttering nonsense and speaking names neither of the girls know.

At home she does weird things, like peeling wallpaper off the walls and boiling it, and going through her jewelry box to find something she can trade for food. Meredith is worried–is her mother suffering from dementia? Whatever it is, it’s becoming almost impossible for Meredith to care for Anya while running the family orchard business. She finally decides a nursing home is the only option.

Meanwhile, Nina has become a world renowned photojournalist. She travels from one place to another, documenting wars, famines, women’s fight for equality. When she discovers Meredith has put Anya in a home, she’s furious and immediately brings their mother back home and berates Meredith for abandoning her.

Easy for Nina to say, Meredith thinks, she’s alway off doing her own thing instead of helping out. But she doesn’t voice her opinion. She feels a duty to handle the orchard, care for her mother, attend to her crumbling marriage and not speak a word of complaint.

While Nina is visiting she decides she will be the one to get their mother to tell them the rest of the fairy tale. Anya resists, but eventually agrees to tell it in small batches, and only in the dark. Slowly the story comes out. As she shares bits and pieces, the girls notice there are a lot of specifics to her story that wouldn’t be in a fairy tale. Is there more to the story than their mother is letting on?

Little by little, the girls pry the truth out of their mother–a truth neither one of them saw coming. But it’s a truth that will mend the rift between them, as well as the hole in Anya’s heart.

Winter Garden is definitely a five-star read. I’ve always enjoyed Kristin Hannah’s novels and this one does not disappoint.

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