My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Evan Whitson has always been the one to hold his family together. Upon his deathbed, he makes his wife, Anya, promise to tell their grown daughters, Meredith and Nina, the rest of a Russian fairy tale she once had started telling them when they were children, a request which befuddles them and turns her — normally cold and distant from them anyways — even more on the defense. With their lives a series of one mess after another, the daughters begin to look for answers to their mother’s apathy, her heritage, and their family’s past. When finally they convince her to tell the fairy tale, they’re told an all-too-real-sounding tale of a beautiful kingdom called Leningrad, the passionate young love of a peasant girl, dangerous secrets in a time of kidnappings and killings, and a desperate winter that finally helps them understand who their mother really is.
Had I realized that this book would so poignantly tell of the events of the siege of Stalingrad (Leningrad), I may have had more interest in it to begin with, and had an easier time getting through the initial, rather depressing first chapters. Having researched the event while in college, I had a bit of knowledge of the background, and had focused more in the military side of the battle, whereas this book recalls the life of one civilians living within the city, making the reader feel what it would be like as a mother, a daughter, or a sister during this time. The “fairy tale” sections are very strong, and do a great job of pulling the reader in and really feeling the desperation and strength of the characters.
The modern-day tale, however, nearly drove me to put the book down a couple of times. In fact, if I hadn’t been reading it for a book club, I might not have gotten through the first two chapters. The characters and their immature lack of interpersonal skills irritated me to no end. There’s the “perfect” dad whom everyone loves, the cold and impersonal mom whom everyone has given up on getting close to, the Type-A micromanaging older sister, the flighty and irresponsible younger sister, and a slew of other very flat supporting characters. None of the characters are good at communicating, and the three main females over and over struck me as incredibly selfish (heaven forbid a woman should give up her career in international photography to “settle” for a guy that she loves and who absolutely loves her, just because he’s expressed that he can’t physically handle the life of constant travel anymore! Nope, can’t think of any possible compromises they could come to there!) I thought they all could have used some serious therapy to work through their issues, and found myself frustrated at the father for waiting until he was on his deathbed to try to bridge the chasm between the mother and daughters, even though he obviously knew the whole time they were growing up why the mother was so emotionally negligent. You don’t think this would have been easier to work through ten, twenty, or thirty years ago?!?!
I also had more than a few small gripes about the ending, which went from unrealistically cliche to cheesy and back again. (highlight for spoiler: If the author was going to go with the most unreasonably dramatic and sappy outcome, she could have at least had Sasha be alive as well, instead of having him die A YEAR prior to the story! Instead, we just end up with Stacey, another sister whom he two main characters become BFFs with immediately, just as they’re now BFFs with their mom, despite her being an emotional black hole throughout their lives previously. The swing from terrible mom to great (or maybe just misunderstood) mom is a bit too much for me, and I’ll admit to being rather cynical about them all of a sudden getting along so well at the end. )
There was also this weird kind of underlying sub-plot message floating around about how the grown daughters aren’t content, and the advice that’s given is basically that they need to do what THEY want in order to find fulfillment and be happy. I’m not sure how exactly this played in with the other message of holding close the people whom you love, and it seemed kind of out of place with the rest of the story. In the epilogue (ten years later) Nina and Daniel are still traveling “around the world on one amazing adventure after another.” Soooo… basically Nina got her way and Daniel gave up everything he wanted? Frankly, I was kind of confused by what the author was trying to get across by that part of the novel.
Overall, this melodramatic, sappy, cry-your-eyes-out-and-hug-your-mother type of story isn’t really my cup of tea, but I could see how fans of “chick lit” may enjoy this for its story-within-a-storytelling, the deep emotions it evokes, and the connections to family and history which tie the characters together in ways they didn’t even realize. Also, heads up… there’s some crude language and sexual content, both of which were awkward and unnecessary to the story.