The interwoven fairy tales are where Winter Garden shines. As it becomes clear that the stories have far greater significance to Anya than a pretty fiction created to entertain her young daughters, the book club-esque present day scenes of Winter Garden become a backdrop for scenes told with a sensibility at once stark and ornate, that quality that is peculiar to Russian art and literature.
The “fairy tale” drags the reader back through time, pulling one first into the nebulous realm of “once-upon-a-time” with Princes, Knights, horses, carriages, trolls, and castles. However, the sense of past grows more specific with each telling, as clues are dropped into the telling – clues that speak of a less distant, and far more personal past. “‘There is nothing to be done about it, Vera,’ her mother says, sitting slumped in a chair at the kitchen table. The past year has taken a toll on her, left its mark in wrinkles. She smokes a cheap cigarette and seems hardly to care that ashes flutter to the wood floor.’” Cigarettes, bicycles, and ration lines infiltrate the stories; buildings are described with traceable architectural detail. The story is becoming real.
Anya’s stories provide the emotional core and lure of Winter Garden. Rich with sense of place and time, filled with tension, each episode drags the reader deeper. While the modern-day scenes of Winter Garden are blandly predictable and familiar, the fairy tale scenes possess a compelling magic that makes the book hard to put down.
The complexity and depth of the “fairy tale” timeline makes Hannah’s pat tying-up-loose-ends resolution all the more inexplicable. Relying heavily on improbable coincidence and a sense of something fated, the conclusion of Winter Garden was a bit too tidy for my satisfaction.
Still, Winter Garden is a lovely place to sit with a pot of tea. I was in no rush to leave.