Wow, what a surprise this book turned out to be! I have been a fan of Kristin Hannah's work ever since a couple years ago when I alternated reading Angel Falls with writing a research paper for an entire Saturday. I finished the book that day as well as my research paper. Since then I've read 5 other books by her and loved most of them. Including that first one, Winter Garden was the 7th book I've read by Ms. Hannah.
I was initially disappointed. In fact, for the first half of the book I found myself bored, trudging through only because I had loved the author's previous works. Winter Garden started out in 1972 when sisters, Meredith and Nina, tried putting on a play at Christmastime to gain their mother's attention. Something happened to anger their mother and from that moment, the girls stopped trying to earn their mother's love. After that the book fast forwards to 2001. Meredith is the responsible sister, staying home and caring for the family apple orchard. Nina is a world traveling photographer who rarely visits home. Their relationship with their mother continued to be strained over the years, and their only connection was through their mutual love for their father.
The father becomes ill, and upon his deathbed, he asks the girls to have their mother finish telling them the fairy tale she has always told. The furthest their relationship ever went with their mother was when she used to tell them a fairy tale about a peasant girl falling in love with a prince. However, she never finished this fairy tale, and after that fated incident in 1972, rarely even told the beginning of the tale. Meredith and Nina then spend many moments after their father's death arguing about what to do to care for their mother and whether or not they should force her to tell them the rest of the fairy tale.
Ok. This is for about 200 pages and at this point I very seriously considered stopping and making this book a DNF (did not finish). I thought "who cares about the fairy tale??" I didn't care for the characters, couldn't relate to them, and thought they were unbelievably boring and contrived. I didn't think the beginning of the fairy tale was intriguing. I even looked at the reviews on amazon to see what everyone else said. But while a sporadic few said it was a waste, the majority said that despite the very slow beginning, it was extremely well worth the rest of the read. So I pushed on.
Well, as it turns out, I didn't have to push myself much past that point anyway because it immediately started to pick up. At that point, Meredith's and Nina's cold, seemingly heartless mother starts to very slowly open up. And she does tell the rest of her tale. Meredith and Nina soon realize that the tale is more than just that.
What follows is a story about a time in history -- the siege in Leningrad during WWII. I don't know much about history so I really didn't know anything about this. And as with any historic fictional accounts, I now want to go and learn more about it. But back to Winter Garden, the story told was heart wrenching. The characters in the "fairy tale" were much more genuine and I felt I was right there alongside them during their sorrows. The amount of hardship the characters went through at that time is unbelievable. This part of the book became very intense and is so different from anything of Hannah's that I have read before. I cried, almost sobbed (except that my husband was sitting next to me looking at me like I was a weirdo) through much of the second part. And in this, Kristin Hannah was able to prove to me, again, how emotionally charged her writing can be.
Since closing the book, I have continued to think about the characters (of the supposed fairy tale) in my mind. And in reading this, I was often reminded of a multi-generational memoir I reviewed in September of 2009, Bending Toward the Sun, in which a mother's tragic past affects her relationship with her children. (Definitely read this if you havent!) While I didn't think there was anything that could happen that would make me think differently of the mother's character (Winter Garden) or excuse her disdain for her children, I was surprisingly wrong. Winter Garden proved to be an intense, affecting read about the relationships between a mother and her children, and how this can be impacted by events of the past. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it to fans of women's fiction or of this author. If you read this and get at all discouraged in the beginning, just keep reading because it picks up and is another great Kristin Hannah read!