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'Winter Garden' an engaging tale

"WINTER GARDEN," by Kristin Hannah, St. Martin's Press, 391 pages, $26.99

Frostiness permeates "Winter Garden," from the lovely winter scene on the book's cover to descriptions of snow on a Pacific Northwest apple orchard to the chilly atmosphere between a mother and her daughters.

In her latest novel, best-selling author Kristin Hannah explores "the empty spaces that gathered between people."

Anya Whitson has never been warm and fuzzy with her daughters, Meredith and Nina. Anya is beautiful and distant, with a mysterious past in Russia that is never talked about with her daughters.

Anya is devoted to her husband yet aloof with her children. Anya spends a great deal of time sitting alone in what she calls her winter garden — a fenced-in patch of barren, snow-covered ground on the family's apple orchard, Belye Nochi.

The only time Meredith and Nina feel close to their mother is when she tells them a fairy tale about a peasant girl and a prince who live in the magical Snow Kingdom, which is under attack from the Black Knight.

"Mom would come into their room at night and tell them wondrous tales of stone hearts and frozen trees and cranes who swallowed starlight. Always in the dark. Her voice was magic. … It would bring them all together for a time, but in the morning, those bonds would be gone, the stories never spoken of."

Anya would tack on a happily-ever-after ending to the fairy tale.

Now grown, Meredith and Nina have left behind the world of fairy tales. "Meredith the martyr" competently runs the family business, cares for her elderly parents and is supermom to two college-age daughters. Nina is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, ready at a moment's notice to jet off to the far corners of the world to capture human tragedy on film.

The coolness that has suffused the women's lives has taken its toll on their hearts. Meredith and her childhood-sweetheart husband have grown apart. Nina remains emotionally distant from her handsome Irish lover.

When tragedy strikes the family, the chasm between mother and daughters — and between the two sisters — grows. Meredith and Nina make a promise to their dying father to get to know their mother, really get to know her.

Meredith and Nina's attempts to connect with the distant Anya are made more difficult by their mother's increasingly bizarre behavior. Anya takes to talking about herself in the third person, stripping wallpaper from the walls, hiding food in her coat pockets and cutting her fingers on purpose.

"Make her tell you the story of the peasant girl and the prince," their beloved father had said. "All of it this time."

It is here, in the allegorical Snow Kingdom, that the two sisters find the key to Anya's past and their own future happiness.

"Winter Garden," a good read, is kept from being a great read by a few minor flaws. Hannah's gift is in her storytelling, not in her dialogue and descriptions of family interactions. The reader never really warms up to Meredith and Nina. Key scenes between Meredith and Nina or between the daughters and their mother sometimes seem contrived. Words don't ring true. But the promise of learning about the enigmatic Anya's past propels the story forward and keeps the reader interested in unearthing the secrets of the "Winter Garden."