In this lyrical family saga, we observe family members who interact like children in parallel play. This mother and two sisters appear detached from one another and bound only by their common love for one man—a husband to one of them and the father to the other two—and how his death fractures them all.
On his deathbed, however, the man, Evan Whitson, exacts a promise from his daughters. He insists on them listening to their mother tell the “fairytale” that has been a recurring theme in their childhood and their only family tradition…their mother’s story of a peasant girl and a prince in Leningrad, and to listen to it to the very end. Implied in this request is that somehow, this story has never yet been fully told and will somehow explain their mother and change their relationships to her and to each other.
But after the death, it is all that the sisters can do to manage their own lives. Meredith, the older sister, has always been the responsible one, holding the business together and taking care of everyone else. Yet she seems unable to prevent her mother’s grief-stricken downward spiral. Meanwhile, Nina, the photojournalist, is off somewhere doing what she does.
The mother, Anya, seemingly finds peace only in her winter garden—a place as icy as her personality—and when one day, Anya seems like a threat to her own safety, Meredith places her in convalescent care.
When Nina returns and abruptly brings their mother home again, the sisters battle things out. And then something happens that changes everything for all of them. Anya begins to tell the fairytale.
What secrets will be revealed by this story, and what does it have to do with any of their lives? Will the telling of the story free them all?
This was a haunting and provocative story that will be in my thoughts for a long time. A surprise twist at the end stunned me, even as I realized that it was the kind of conclusion we can always hope for in such a tale.
Winter Garden seems to epitomize the iciness of secrets, betrayals, and disconnectedness that inform the lives of our characters, and in this story, we also learn much about the strength of the human condition and how surviving loss can add to that strength.