Saturday, March 3, 2012

Book Review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

This was my pick for my library book club last month.  It was one of the greatest discussions we have had about a single book, opening up all sorts of conversation topics and feelings for and against the book.  But yowza, was it an emotional roller coaster of a read! 

This book begins under a pretty typical "women's lives and relationships" formula.  Meredith and Nina are about as opposite as two sisters can be.  Meredith married her childhood sweetheart and took over the family business while Nina travels the world as a freelance photographer.  However, the thing they have in common is a deep love for their father and just as deep of an ambivilance for their mother. 

Growing up, the girls clung to their loving and warm father while constantly living in the shadow of their stern and cold mother.  However, when their father dies, they are left with broken hearts and the promise to "get to know their mother."  Anya Whitson is not an easy person to get to know though, something Meredith and Nina know firsthand from years of disappointment and neglect.  Still, out of love for their father, they return to their childhood home and persuade Anya to finish a fairy tale she began long ago, the tale of a young princess and her dashing prince.

As Anya finally begins unraveling her fairy tale it takes on a much darker and more realistic presence.  Suddenly the young princess is a pesant girl trapped in Soviet-blockaded Leningrad, fighting for her life and the lives of her children. 

Meredith and Nina are shocked and moved as their mother's story unfolds with amazing beauty and horror, discovering a woman they never knew before.

This is a touching and heartbreaking novel about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, but it is so much more.  It is an elecritfiying novel of historical fiction about the seige of Leningrad, an overwhelmingly tragic moment in history.  It is a novel about the triumph of the human spirit in the face of terrible trauma. 

I have to say, as a mother of young children this book haunted me deeply.  There's really nothing like reading about young children slowly starving to make you squeeze your own plump little babies until they squirm and say "Ow mommy, down please!"  Or maybe it's just me!  I literally could not talk about it for weeks without crying.  Hmmm...I'm not really selling it very well am I?  I really did love this book and the rich, multi-layered plot.  Kristen Hannah does an exellent job of telling a tragic story without being overly cloying or sentimental, so I'll forgive her for making me a little bit crazy while reading it.