Adult sisters Meredith and Nina Whitson couldn’t be less alike. Meredith is the perfect daughter, the one who stayed near home to enter the family business, learning the patient art of raising apple trees from her father, using her own business sense to expand the orchards’ sales from apples to grapes to local handicrafts. Younger sister Nina, on the other hand, was all too impatient to leave home. She is unpredictable and most often absent, flying to war zones all over the world as a prize-winning photojournalist. Reliable Meredith and passionate but unpredictable Nina have a single bond: their devotion to their beloved father and their shared distance from their emotionally cold mother.
But when their father suffers a serious heart attack and advises his daughters on his deathbed to listen to their mother --- to actually pay attention to the abstract fairy tales she’s been trying to tell them since they were children --- the sisters are skeptical. Nina doesn’t stick around to really hear her mother’s stories, and Meredith fears her mother’s frighteningly rapid mental decline, which she attributes to senility but that the family doctor ascribes to grief.
The two sisters clash over how to deal with their mother: Nina criticizes Meredith for quickly sending their mother to a nursing home, while Meredith resents Nina for being thousands of miles away during their family crisis. Without their father’s strong presence, the glue holding the family together, they threaten to split apart and leave their mother alone in their wake: “Without her father, Meredith feared she would be like one of those dormant apple trees: bare, vulnerable, exposed.” Both are also experiencing crises in their romantic lives, struggles that they can’t even discuss with each other, leaving them feeling both angry and alone.
Anya, the girls’ mother, is largely a mystery, even before her speech declines into seeming nonsense. Although she loves her husband deeply, she has never connected with either of her daughters. But when Nina finds herself drawn back to the family’s farm, she encourages her mother to tell her stories --- from start to finish --- and tries her best to draw a reluctant Meredith into the story as well. Far from a mere fairy tale, Anya’s story might hold the key not only to her elusive personality but also to her family’s future well-being.
Anya’s fairy tales, rich in Russian folklore and history, form the emotional core of WINTER GARDEN, as readers will find themselves drawn into her stories and, like the feuding sisters, come to understand the complex and profound background of a character who is largely unknowable (and in many ways unlikable) at the novel’s opening. Through the unfolding power of story, readers come to know this character and to appreciate that family relationships can be salvaged --- or forged in the first place --- even in mid-life.
Although in many ways the situations and characters in WINTER GARDEN are extremes, sisters and daughters of all ages will recognize fundamental truths in Kristin Hannah’s keenly observed portrayal of the Whitson family. This is the kind of book that will be discussed fervently and fondly among book groups and then passed hand to hand from sisters to mothers to daughters, all of whom --- like the family in the novel --- will recognize and appreciate the truth and power of a good story.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 24, 2011