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Published by Harper on March 8th 2016
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Blinded by a fatal illness, young Ukrainian doctor Zinaida Lintvaryova is living on her family’s rural estate in the summer of 1888. When a family from Moscow rents a cottage on the grounds, Zinaida develops a deep bond with one of their sons, a doctor and writer of modest but growing fame called Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Intelligent, curious, and increasingly introspective as her condition worsens, Zinaida keeps a diary chronicling this extraordinary friendship that comes to define the last years of her life.
In the winter of 2014, Katya Kendall’s London publishing house is floundering-as is her marriage. Katya is convinced that salvation lies in publishing Zinaida’s diary, and she approaches translator Ana Harding about the job. As Ana reads the diary, she is captivated by the voice of the dying young doctor. And hidden within Zinaida’s words, Ana discovers tantalizing clues suggesting that Chekhov—who was known to have composed only plays and short stories—actually wrote a novel during his summers with Zinaida that was subsequently lost. Ana is determined to find Chekhov’s “lost” manuscript, but in her search she discovers it is but one of several mysteries involving Zinaida’s diary.
Inspired by fragments of historical truth, The Summer Guest is a transportive, masterfully written novel about an unusual, fascinating friendship that transcends the limits of its time and place. It’s also a contemporary story about two compelling, women, both of whom find solace in Zinaida and Chekhov as they contemplate all that’s missing in their own lives.
“She had dared to believe in the truth of the imagination.” But the question that echoes after the book is done is whose imagination? And even more tellingly, whose truth?
This is a story of three women, spread across two eras and three countries, and the commonality they find, or are found to have, over their love of the work of Anton Chekhov.
In 1888, Chekhov and his family spend that summer, and the following summer as summer guests of the Lintvaryov family in Luka, in what is now Ukraine. At that point in his life, he was known but not yet famous, and still making his reputation. But his writings, rather than his medical practice, were the economic support of his family. His parents, his sisters and his brothers. Their support was both a joy and somewhat of a distracting burden.
They took him, or he took them, to Luka, so that he could write and relax. Or the other way around.
He became friends with the oldest daughter of the Lintvaryov house, a doctor like himself, But Zinaida Mikhailovna was no longer practicing medicine. She had been struck down by illness, most likely a brain tumor. In 1888 she was already blind, and her world was closing in.
To keep the internal darkness at bay, Zinaida kept a diary, by writing in a special box designed to keep her lines apart and legible. In 2014, Katya Kendall sends Zinaida’s diary, in the original Russian, to translator Ana Harding.
Katya’s small publishing company, a joint effort between herself and her somewhat distant husband Peter, is failing. Their business of publishing translations of Russian and Eastern European works has never recovered from the recession of 2008, especially as it was followed by so much political unrest in the countries that were their biggest customers.
Katya and Peter hope that the publication of Zinaida’s diary, illuminating as it does a documented but little known piece of Chekhov’s life, will allow them to recover their fortunes. Ana, captivated with the voice of the woman in the diary she has received, hopes that the publication of her translation will make her reputation, and in a way, justify the choices she has made in her life.
But Zinaida takes her under her spell, bringing those long-lost summers to life. In Zinaida’s words, Ana finds truths that captivate her to the point of visiting Luka herself, now in a brief calm between wars, in order to find the truth of the most surprising revelation of the diary – that Chekhov, the master of the play and the short story, left behind one novel, entrusted to the care of his dying friend.
Or did he?
Escape Rating B: The Summer Guest is a story of fiction as the lie that tells the truth. Ana and Katya both find themselves enraptured by Zinaida’s writing across the years, although in much different ways and for completely different reasons.
They both find the long-ago diarist a kindred spirit – a woman who still reached out to the world, even as her own was closing in. As both Katya’s and Ana’s lives seem to be, although not in the same way.
In the end, it is Zinaida’s voice that shines most clearly in the story, in spite of the way that it comes to be. And it is Ana’s search for meaning and purpose that provides the resolution at the end. Even though the diary turned out to be a lie, it still told Ana a truth that she needed to see.