Adult sisters Meredith and Nina were raised on an apple orchard in Washington by Anya, their emotionally distant mother, and their loving father Evan. Their mother grew up in Russia, but she refuses to discuss her past and her daughters long ago gave up on trying to break through their mother's cold exterior. Meredith married her high school sweetheart and she became involved in running the orchards. When Evan became ill, Meredith took over sole management. Younger sister Nina is a professional photographer who travels the world and has her pictures published in National Geographic and other notable magazines. Meredith has assumed the martyr role, while Nina is the escapist. Oil and water.
When Evan dies, their stoic mother appears to fall apart. They discover her sitting for hours in her snow-covered garden wrapped in a blanket over her nightgown with bare feet exposed. The sisters end up grappling with their own faltering relationships while trying to care for their mother who experiences manic episodes. Nina decides it is time to get to the bottom on their mother's past. They know she was born in Russia and married their father after World War II. Nina believes the Russian fairy tale their mother recited when they were young is the key to the truth about her past. Meredith does not share Nina's determination, but she is drawn into the story as Nina gets Anya to repeat the fairy tale in full. Anya gradually drops the imaginary trappings to reveal the true identities of the characters that she had disguised with fantasy.
They learn that Anya is a survivor of the Siege of Leningrad during which she lost her entire family. She eventually arrived at a German prison camp where she was rescued by the American troops that included Evan. It becomes apparent that Anya suffers from survivor's guilt and she is ashamed that she could not protect her loved ones from the German invasion.
Most of us agreed that the book started slowly and was a bit repetitious in setting up the family relationships. However, Anya's war experiences were riveting. We discussed whether the book would have been better without the present-day story but tended to think it put into perspective how Anya's horrendous experiences affected her and those around her.
I had several credibility issues throughout the book. I couldn't believe Meredith and Nina were so dense when it came to interpreting Anya's fairy tale (the Black Knight was so obviously Stalin) and researching her past (given their birth dates and the post-war marriage of their parents it was likely that Anya had lived in Stalinist Russia for at least part of her life). And for me the ending seemed tacked on at the last minute.
We explored the theme that pain can be isolating. Without forgiveness there can be no love. Anya could not forgive herself and carried her pain forward. No matter how hard Meredith and Nina tried to prove that they were worthy of their mother's love, Anya was unprepared to demonstrate it because she believed she had been a failure as a mother.
Two of our book club members had mothers who were emotionally distant and they could identify with the situations in the novel. They discussed how their upbringing affected their relationships throughout their lives. I felt fortunate to have such a close relationship with my parents and a knowledge of stories from both sides of the family tree.
In the end, Anya lived through the siege because she didn't know how to give up surviving. And, like their mother, Nina and Meredith refused to give up on discovering the real Anya.
This was the first novel I've read on my new Kindle. Since Winter Garden is not a novel I would have selected outside the book club, and I have no interest in keeping it on my book shelf, the digital version was perfect. I'm still figuring out the bookmarking, highlighting, and notes features. As I stated in my previous post, I rather missed being able to easily flip back the pages. But the more I use the device, the easier it will become.
One Kindle feature I find intriguing is the ability to see what other readers have highlighted in the book. It was apparent that certain passages of Winter Garden had much more meaning for wives and mothers than they did for me. Having been neither, they didn't resonate the same when I read them.
We take turns proposing the next novel for the group to read. Ideally, we'd like a selection that none of us has read previously so we can all experience it at the same time. But that can be difficult. Two of us have read the next book, but it's been so long ago that I'm sure we'll enjoy reentering the world of:
Frankly, I was surprised that other members of the book club were unfamiliar with the book and author. As both are among my favorites, I'll be interested in their reactions to the story and DuMaurier's writing.