The cover image of Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden mirrors the chill inside the book. It is a chill that permeates the weather, but also relationships. But, yet, there is a butterfly that foretells the coming of a time of warmth.
Anya is the aloof mother of Nina and Meredith, daughters who have taken different paths in life. Nina is the adventurer, the National Geographic photojournalist who has traveled the world and chronicled wars and famines. Although involved with Danny, she has not and does not want to put down roots. Meredith, on the other hand, married young, has two daughters, and has stayed close to home helping to run the family orchard business. They converge at the bedside of their beloved father when he has had a severe stroke and is near death. He is the glue that has held the family together and his last wish is for his daughters to get to know and love their mother, something that has not been possible for the girls despite their trying. "Make her tell you the story of the peasant girl and the prince," their beloved father had said. "All of it this time."
As they were growing up the girls were treated to fairy tales told by their mother. They took place in Russia, her home before coming to the U.S. Beyond that they knew very little of their mother's life. In fact, it is only at the end of the book that they actually find out when Anya's birthday is. Struggling to hold their lives together after their father's death, Meredith and Nina must make sense of their mother's dementia (or is it just grief), their personal lives, and the emptiness that surrounds them. It is through the fairy tale of the peasant girl and he prince that the reader and the girls learn the reason that Anya has lived in the cold shell of the Winter Garden.
This book was slow to engage me. At the beginning I was very impatient with the direction the story was taking as well as the prolonged narration of the story within the story. As it became more clear as to the purpose of Anya's tale, I was taken in. The siege of Leningrad and the plight of the Russian people is heartbreaking. Man's inhumanity has played out in so many venues and time periods, but the conditions in Russia during this time were more than appalling. (Very reminiscent although from a different perspective of Bohjalian's Skeletons at the Feast.) As the sisters begin to understand their mother they know what they must do to crack the ice that stands in the way of unconditional love and acceptance. A trip to Alaska, a visit to a professor who has written a treatise on the Siege, and a chance meeting in a coffee shop, and a powerful resolution give explanation for Anya's actions.
I cannot understand ( I don't have that perspective) of how a woman can be so affected that she is not able to love her children with all her heart and soul, even with the horrific experience that is her life. That part of the novel just doesn't ring true to me. The strength of the novel is in Kristin Hannah's description. The settings as diverse as an orchard in Washington, a homestead filled with memories, a Russian city under siege, the beauty of Alaska are masterfully penned. Again, this is a book I would probably not have read if it had not been a book discussion selection.