Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review: Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Winter Garden
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is not my favorite of the Kristin Hannah books I've read. It reads like one of hers, and carries over a lot of the themes of her other books, but I felt like the deeper subject matter was made light of, instead of the shallowness of the rest of the plot being enriched by some heavier topics.

The book is about the Whitson sisters, whose mother never loved them. Their wonderful, perfect father tries to make up for the lack of a mother's love, but then he dies, and people's lives fall apart. It turns out Mom has been suffering from PTSD for the last 55 years, and has to be pestered into sharing her trauma so that her daughters can get over their issues. Those being, one of them can't figure out if she still loves her husband of 20-something years, and the other might not want to marry her awesome boyfriend.

If that summary read as deeply sarcastic to you, congratulations. I was extremely disappointed in the use of someone's history of near-starvation during WWII in then-Leningrad to help some WASPy women realize their mother loved them all along. It was too pat, too neat and predictable.

I had a hard time believing that the father was as wonderful as everyone believed. He was married to this woman he supposedly loved for 50+ years, and never once confronted her about the fact that she was acting out her trauma? There's keeping the peace, and then there's being delusional to the point of scarring your kids. Supposedly, he loved his daughters, but he let them think their mother just didn't care about them. The fact that he made his youngest daughter promise, on her deathbed, to extract the story of what happened, fails to make this better in my mind. He sidestepped the real work involved with loving someone, and let everyone around him suffer so he didn't have to upset his wife.

As for the trauma, itself, it turns out dear, distant Mom actually survived WWII in Leningrad, by the skin of her teeth, and has been carrying around that trauma and survivor's guilt for decades. That she shares her trauma with her girls (and therefore heals their midlife angst) is supposed to fix four decades of treating them like they didn't matter.

One major problem with the narrative was that Mom's flashback is called a "fairy tale," and it's described as being told in a storytelling voice. But the tone of the "fairy tale" is never anything like a fairy tale, even a Russian one. It's too detailed, too dialogue-centric, too formally crafted. It didn't sound like the sort of narrative a woman could repeat word-for-word with each retelling.

I never felt like the characters were real, their reactions something real human beings would have, except for Vera, who's been deeply traumatized. For that trauma to translate into healing one self-sabotaging woman's marriage and another's commitment issues made it shallow, though, and like it didn't matter. The takeaway was too superficial. It also managed to trivialize every other difficult mother-daughter relationship, ever, in suggesting that distant moms must have a good excuse and therefore the daughters' feelings of emotional abandonment don't matter.

I know Kristin Hannah can write touching stories about grief and love and healing, which is why this was such a disappointment. Hopefully she'll stick to lighter subjects.

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