58 pages 1 hour read

Kristin Hannah

Winter Garden

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2010

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Summary and Study Guide


Winter Garden (2010) is a historical fiction novel by Kristin Hannah. The novel is based on the Siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during World War II, and features several themes that explore what it means to overcome grief, issues surrounding identity and family, and the power of women’s relationships. Most of Hannah’s novels center on strong female characters and the trials and conflicts they overcome. In Winter Garden, Anya Whitson, Meredith Whitson Cooper, and Nina Whitson must overcome the grief of losing Evan, Anya’s husband and Meredith and Nina’s father. In the process, they heal their past conflicts and discover their collective strength and identity.

This guide uses the 2010 St. Martin’s Griffin paperback edition.

Plot Summary

When Meredith Whitson was 12, she planned a play to perform for her family based on the fairy tales her mother had told her and her sister, Nina. However, when Meredith and Nina perform their play at the family’s Christmas party, their mother, Anya, becomes angry. Anya’s reaction creates a deep rift between her and her daughters.

Meredith is now 40 years old and still carries the trauma of living with a cold and uncaring mother. She works for the family apple orchard, Belye Nochi, in Washington State, while Nina travels worldwide as a photojournalist. One day, Nina learns that her father has had a heart attack, so she returns home. With the whole family gathered together, Anya tells the fairy tale again as a promise to Evan, but she doesn’t tell the entire thing. After Evan’s death, Nina returns to work, unable to face her difficult mother and sister, and Anya begins to act strangely.

Meredith tries to push through her grief, affecting her marriage to the point Jeff leaves her. She becomes burnt out caring for Anya while running the orchard, so she admits Anya to a nursing home. While Meredith tries to juggle everything at Belye Nochi, Nina continues her work in the field but learns that her photos aren’t good enough for her editor to use. She decides to return to Washington only to discover that her mother is in the nursing home. Nina takes Anya back to Belye Nochi and decides to take over Anya’s care. In doing so, she convinces her mother to continue telling the fairy tale, which Meredith listens to in secret. Despite the continuing conflict between the three women, Anya, Meredith, and Nina have dinner together each night and share pieces of information about themselves for the first time.

Evan’s birthday arrives, so the three women gather in the winter garden to spread his ashes. As Nina walks out to the garden, she trips and loses her grip on the box, causing it to shatter against a column and spread Evan’s ashes everywhere. Anya helps Nina to her feet, and the three women laugh together for the first time. Meredith and Nina begin talking and healing their relationship. They work together to learn more about who their mother is and her connection to the fairy tale. Anya continues telling the fairy tale, which recounts how a peasant girl named Vera met a prince, fell in love, and started a family with him.

The more Meredith and Nina listen to Anya’s fairy tale, the more they realize it’s a true account of Vera’s life. However, they don’t know the connection between Anya and Vera. Meredith discovers a professor of Russian studies in Alaska who reached out to Anya years ago, whose name is Vasily. She learns he’s had a stroke and is in a nursing home in Juneau, Alaska. Nina then books passage for herself, Meredith, and Anya on an Alaskan cruise to get more information from the professor or her mother. The first night on the ship, Anya confirms that the fairy tale is a true account of Vera’s life. A few days later, Anya admits that her real name is Vera.

As the women travel on the ship, Anya continues to tell Vera’s story of survival during the Siege of Leningrad. Vera loses her mother, grandmother, and sister and watches her two small children slowly starve. Her husband, Sasha, joined the army and is often away from his family, leaving Vera alone to keep her children alive. As Anya continues her story, she opens up to her daughters, apologizing for not telling them she loves them and for the moments of hurt they’ve experienced in life because of her. The ship arrives in Sitka, Alaska, and the women enjoy seeing the many elements of Russian culture incorporated into the town. Meredith watches a family take pictures and realizes she loves her husband. She calls Jeff, and they begin to repair their marriage.

Meredith, Nina, and Anya go to Vasily’s nursing home when the ship stops in Juneau. Anya finishes her story as Vasily’s son, Maksim, records her narration. Vera eventually loses her son to scurvy and starvation, and she watches her daughter and husband die when a bomb explodes next to them. Meredith and Nina are overcome with love and understanding when they hear the end of their mother’s story. The three women heal their relationship and forgive each other for what they didn’t understand.

The women then return to Sitka to deliver some tapes to Vasily’s former student. In the process, Anya discovers that her daughter is still alive and working as a waitress in a Russian restaurant in Sitka. Meredith, Anya, and Nina return home, and nine years pass. Meredith and Jeff travel a lot, as do Danny and Nina. Both couples have found peace and happiness. Stacey, Anya’s first daughter, comes to Beyle Nochi often to visit with her mother. One day, Anya goes into her winter garden and passes away, having finally found peace.

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