Meredith and Nina Whitson are as different as sisters can be. One stayed at home to raise her children and manage the family apple orchard: the other followed a dream and traveled the world to become a famous photojournalist. But when their beloved father falls ill, Meredith and Nina find themselves together again, standing alongside their cold, disapproving mother, Anya, who even now, offers no comfort to her daughters. As children, the only connection between them was the Russian fairy tale Anya sometimes told the girls at night. On his deathbed, their father extracts a promise from the women in his life: the fairy tale will be told one last time – and all the way to the end. Thus begins an unexpected journey into the truth of Anya’s life in war-torn Leningrad, more than five decades ago. Alternating between the past and present, Meredith and Nina will finally hear the singular, harrowing story of their mother’s life, and what they learn is a secret so terrible and terrifying that it will shake the very foundation of their family and change who they believe they are.
My opinion: This book was heartbreaking and had me sobbing towards the end. I usually don’t mind hard stories, especially stories that take place during real wars. It’s important to remember history and to hear people’s stories, both real and fiction. I don’t know much about Russia during the 30s and 40s. I enjoy WWII books and often read stories that are from the point of view of Americans, British, French, and German people. But this is the first time I’ve read a book that took place during WWII from a Russian point of view. I’ve spent some time thinking about the book before writing a review in case my overly emotional reaction was tainting my opinion. But I still feel like 3 stars is a fair rating and I still feel so discouraged about the overall story for some reason.
The story is about Meredith and Nina, who lose their father and are “stuck” taking care of their emotionally distant mother. They are also dealing with issues in their romantic relationships that stem from a childhood of emotional neglect by their mother. Their mom, Anya, tells them a fairy tale in bits and pieces and soon they discover exactly what has shaped their lives over the years.
The first half of the book is slow and repetitive. The pace quickens in the second half and changes are made in how the characters relate to one another. We find out more about what happened in the past in Soviet Russia. Horrible things happened long ago, and while they have shaped the women’s present lives, they still overcome the struggles to emerge as a new family.
While the story lifts at the end, it didn’t make me feel any happier about the depressing stuff. I think that’s mostly my personal issue, but just know that one of the triggers is childhood death. I’ve read the author’s book The Nightingale in which something similar happens, but for some reason this was harder for me to read. Overall, I recommend this if you want to learn more about Soviet Russia, but I liked The Nightingale better.
Why I gave this book 3/5 stars: Too depressing, repetitive narrative, slow pace in the first half, but the pace picks up and the characters make positive life changes.