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Originally published Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Book review

'Winter Garden': Kristin Hannah's story of a distant mother and her secrets

Bainbridge Island author Kristin Hannah's novel "Winter Garden" tells the story of two daughters and their distant mother, whose secrets shadow their relationship. Hannah reads next week in Poulsbo and Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Kristin Hannah

The author of "Winter Garden" will read at these area locations:

• Launch party at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Liberty Bay Books, 18881 D Front St., Poulsbo; free (360-779-5909 or www.libertybaybooks.com).

• 7 p.m. Wednesday, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

• 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Barnes & Noble, 2675 N.E. University Village St., Seattle; free (206-517-4107 or http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/store/2573).

Bainbridge Island novelist Kristin Hannah returns to the subject area she has made her own in most of her 17 preceding books — the impact of the past and its secrets on family relationships — in her new "Winter Garden" (St. Martin's Press, 392 pp, $25.99).

Set in a family apple orchard on the Columbia River, the novel explores the emotionally chilly Whitson family, whose two daughters, Meredith and Nina, are suffering from a lifelong and unexplained freeze-out by their mother.

"... Anya Whitson was a cold woman; any warmth she had was directed at her husband," Hannah writes. "Precious little of it reached her daughters." In anecdote after episode, the novelist details the puzzling behavior of a mother who won't even look at her two girls; a mother who only comes alive when telling the legends and fairy tales of her native Russia.

No wonder Meredith and Nina, now adults, have dysfunctional relationships. Meredith, who is in turn the mother of two grown girls, is a remote and driven workaholic wife who keeps her husband at an emotional distance. Nina, whose job as a news photographer means she is constantly on the run to the world's trouble spots, keeps her long-suffering, off-and-on boyfriend in the background, not even mentioning his existence to her sister.

As time goes by, the mother becomes stranger and stranger. Why is Anya, now elderly, tearing strips of wallpaper off the walls and boiling them in water on the stove? Why is she intentionally slicing her fingertips with an X-acto knife, and dragging an old toboggan through the orchard?

We don't know, and by the time the reader is almost halfway through the novel, all this frigid gloom may have you thoroughly depressed. As Nina puts it: "I guess you get used to what you're raised with. Like those feral kids who actually think they're dogs."

It isn't until the two daughters get Anya to tell them the fairy tale about the prince and the peasant girl — a tale that has a mysterious significance for Anya — that they discover this supposed legend is full of details about Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the 1930s. It is a period that clearly has special connection to Anya's own history. After Meredith finds some old papers, including a letter from a Russian professor in Alaska, the two sisters decide to take their mother on an Alaska trip to follow the clues to her past (and to discover whether the prince-and-peasant-girl fairy tale is really factual, not mythical).

Continuing to tell episodes from the "fairy tale" each night on the Alaska cruise, but actually narrating her own history, Anya at last lets her daughters in on a secret past that has scarred her (and them) forever. And yes, hers is a terrible, searing story, with a breathtaking, beautifully told ending.

The question for Hannah's readers will be whether these late revelations are enough to balance the unsympathetic portrait of a coldhearted woman in the many preceding chapters. For this reader, it doesn't work: Too many real-life people have undergone horrific wartime experiences and still been able to give their own children a hug and a smile.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She's a freelance contributor to The Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).

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