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Culture Watch

In this issue: Kristin Hannah's The Winter Garden is a slightly flawed but enjoyable tale about people who fit the fiction, but some of them perhaps not quite to the life. Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a sober, engaging, and thought-provoking volume that explores the decline of Pakistan’s feudal order;In these days of bodice-rippers and cliff-hangers, there are precious few books which are best experienced in short dips. Thomas Mallon's Yours Ever is a prime example of the latter.

By Kristin Hannah © 2010
St. Martin's Press, Advance Reader's Edition, 392 pp

Kristin Hannah is the author of several intricately plotted novels centered around women in various kinds of peril, usually more psychological than physical.  Winter Garden  follows this tradition. It is a fable about three women: Anya and her daughters Meredith and Nina. All three are caught in a kind of trap made of their past. Anya is in denial, Meredith is trying to ignore what she has always seen as her mother's rejection, and Nina has simply left the place where she, too, has failed to attract her mother's love.

The structure is fairly complicated, moving backwards to a distant and fabulous past, onward to the time of World War II, and forward into the present. The story also travels between what is presented as fact (albeit much is hidden from both the reader's sight and from the characters') and what seems to be a kind of fairy tale fiction. 

The setting in the far northwest in a commercial orchard provides opportunities for describing a countryside not too familiar to many readers, but lovingly described in all seasons.  The women who are the main actors in the drama are a mysterious matriarch who is a Russian immigrant and her two American daughters. All three are dependant on the husband and father, who forms the emotional link for the whole family that is broken with his death.

The elder of the two daughters is a repressed, dutiful, frustrated woman. She has reared her daughters, supported her husband, and taken over the family business. Her dutifulness at times reminds one of patient Griselda, so self-negating does she seem to be. Meredith not only never shirks, she seems incapable of any form of self gratification.

When their father dies, Meredith takes over her mother's care in spite of the coldness between them and the demands of running the business and managing her marriage. Even when she sees a rift forming between her and her husband, she behaves as if she is powerless to give her mind to repairing it. 

Her sister in contrast has flown to the third world as a freelance photojournalist, where she is consumed by the strenuous and difficult life of depicting the worst scenes on the planet. She is addicted to recording what surrounds her and takes only an occasional break with a male friend whom she refuses to view in another light. 

Mom, a.k.a. Anya, is an enigmatic and unsympathetic character, so emotionally distant from her children that she has, to some extent, distorted each of their lives. The reader understands that she has endured a terrible past, but the span of time since it has gone by makes it difficult to accept her condition as portrayed while the story progresses. 

Meredith, who has stayed at home to make good on her promise to her dying father to take care of her mother is convinced when Nina arrives that she will simply leave everything and go back to Africa again. She and Nina are almost instantly at odds.

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