Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review – Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Lately, I’ve read several historical fiction books about Europe during Nazi and Stalin times. I’m not sure why, but each book has pulled me into the sorrowful past and I’ve thought about the many lives lost under extremist rule.

My recent historical journey was Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah. I never read a book by Kristin before, but she certainly made me a fan with this book.

Book Genre: Historical Fiction
Paperback: 448 Pages

Synopsis from Amazon:

Can a woman ever really know herself if she doesn’t know her mother?

“Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family apple orchard; the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, Meredith and Nina find themselves together again, standing alongside their cold, disapproving mother, Anya, who even now, offers no comfort to her daughters. As children, the only connection between them was the Russian fairy tale Anya sometimes told the girls at night. On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise from the women in his life: the fairy tale will be told one last time—and all the way to the end. Thus begins an unexpected journey into the truth of Anya’s life in war-torn Leningrad, more than five decades ago. Alternating between the past and present, Meredith and Nina will finally hear the singular, harrowing story of their mother’s life, and what they learn is a secret so terrible and terrifying that it will shake the very foundation of their family and change who they believe they are.”

What made me want to read this book?

I can’t pinpoint exactly what made me want to read this book. I recently read a few YA historical fiction, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys because it was compared to The Book Thief. Here’s the link to my review of that book - I enjoyed both these books, so I figured I would enjoy the Winter Garden, too.

Winter Garden is about a mother’s fairy tale of love and survival in Leningrad, Russia during the war. There is a great overwhelming emotion I feel when I think about how people struggled to survive in Europe during Stalin and Hitler rule. Although fiction, these books about the tyranny and hatred these two leaders carried in their hearts and commanded can’t be expressed in history books ... and from my memory, I don’t recall learning about them. So, I’ve been interested in reading about what happened in Europe during the war, and how so many suffered and died without even being put in a Potter’s Field.

My Review

Kristin Hannah accomplished one very difficult task as a writer, and that is progressive character change. From the start, her characters are flawed and lost, but as the story progresses, the characters gradually change … and the mother, Anya, changes a lot. It’s incredible to read and experience a writer creating flawed characters, one to the point of dislike, and then seeing them transform to the point of liking them.  

Meredith and Nina’s mother, Anya, was never really a mother to them. She was cold and distant, but the one thing that brought them together as children was Anya telling her fairy tale. On his deathbed, their beloved father, Evan, made his wife promise to tell the entire fairy tale to his daughters, and asked his daughters to truly listen to the story. As Anya begins to tell the fairy tale, and her erratic behavior diminishes, Meredith and Nina realize the fairy tale isn’t really a fairy tale, but about their mother’s life in Leningrad, Russia.

Along with dimensional characters and learning about suffering, Kristin’s writing adds to the beauty of the story. Below are a few examples of her writing style:

“Words were like pennies, fallen into corners and down the cracks, not worth the effort of collecting” (pg. 52)

“Grief had become her silent sidekick.” (pg. 81)

“She hears a squawking sound coming through a speaker and the word—Attention—thrown like a knife into wood.” (pg. 254)

A few things I didn’t like about the book were the ending and the mothers’ relationship with the father. The ending seemed rushed and everything wrapped up too nicely. I also wondered how Meredith and Nina felt knowing their mother’s heart belonged to another, and also why their father married such a woman.

Because of these flaws, I give this book a 4.25-star out of 5.

Fairy tales and Love,


  1. As much as I love studying history now, historical fiction hasn't been a huge pull for me. Except when it comes to historical science fiction.

    On the rare occasion when I go for something that isn't sci fi related I tend more toward memoirs.

    1. Jon, It's great to have so many different genres to choose. As a child, I never liked history, but I think now living in Europe has made me appreciate it a lot more.

  2. I love that cover! And I really love a book where you can really see the characters change and grow.

    1. Peggy, The cover is great with a combination of pictures integrated together.

  3. This sounds like my kind of book. I really liked Helen Dunmore's "The Seige", and it made me realize how little I knew about Russia's part in WWII. I have always been drawn to that era, depressing as it might be at times.
    But the quotes from Kristin's book are lovely. I will definitely check it out. Thanks for introducing her to me.

    1. I never read Helen Dunmore's book. I'll have to look into that one. That era is depressing, but it's also an awakening.

  4. I have always been drawn to this era, and really enjoyed, gruelling as it was, Helen Dunmore's The Seige. It made me realize how little I knew of Russia's part in WWII. Kristen prose is lovely- I will def. check it out. Thanks Denise:-)

  5. I've not read much historical fiction, but what little I have has either been from the WWII era or the Wild West. Based on your review, I would definitely consider reading this book.

  6. The Wild West? I don't think I've ever read a book from that era, which is surprising since I like western movies.

  7. I also think that history is so sad - but also so fascinating... They are the kinds of books that stay with you, aren't they?

    1. They are, Pat. They're full of sadness, but you can't help thinking about it long after you finished reading the book.