Rebecca's Reviews > The Summer Guest

The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, writers-and-writing, read-via-edelweiss, best-of-2016

(Nearly 4.5) Presuming this was a debut – I’d not heard of Anderson, though she’s a respected translator from the French and has two other historical novels to her name – I had low expectations and was pleasantly surprised to find an elegantly plotted story about writing, translation, illness, and making the most of life. In short, this is the book that Rachel Cantor’s Good on Paper was billed to be, but where that was a sore disappointment this one is a treasure.

The kernel of the novel is a true story: for two summers in the late 1880s, Chekhov (known here as Anton Pavlovich) stayed at the Lintvaryovs’ guest house in Luka, Ukraine. One strand of the narration is a journal kept during those years by Zinaida Mikhailovna, the family’s eldest daughter. She and her sisters were highly educated for their time; two, Zina and Elena, had even become doctors. The physician’s profession is something Zina and Chekhov have in common, then – the difference being that Zina, aged 30, is dying of a brain tumor. Already it has taken her sight, and now it’s causing headaches and seizures. She knows she might not have much time left, yet she throws herself into passionate conversations with their distinguished guest about art, family and the meaning of life. Her brother has rigged up a box with a moving ruler that will help her keep her lines straight, and she hopes that by passing on her writing to her newborn niece she’ll gain some modicum of immortality.

I loved Zina’s voice and the glimpses into Russia’s literary world. But that’s not the whole scope of the novel; Zina’s short, somewhat tragic life is offset by two contemporary women. Katya, a Russian émigré in London who’s trying to keep her husband’s failing publishing house afloat, sends the never-before-published diary to Ana, a translator based near the French border with Switzerland. The diary is meaningful to both of them for different reasons, and there’s also a touch of mystery to it: where was it found? Why had it not come to light before? And what has become of the novel Chekhov mentions he had in progress at the time? Ana’s search for the answers to these questions will take her to the Lintvaryov estate, even though Ukraine in 2014 is a hotbed of unrest.

Having recently watched the BBC War & Peace miniseries with rapt interest and seen a Tchaikovsky symphony performance, it was the perfect time for me to get lost in an intricate, playful novel about how Russian literature still resonates. Who knows, I might even be inspired to pick up some Chekhov. I’ll certainly be looking up Anderson’s other novels.
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Reading Progress

August 10, 2015 – Shelved
August 10, 2015 – Shelved as: on-hold
August 10, 2015 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
August 10, 2015 – Shelved as: writers-and-writing
August 10, 2015 – Shelved as: read-via-edelweiss
February 9, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
March 2, 2016 – Started Reading
March 7, 2016 – Finished Reading
March 10, 2016 – Shelved as: best-of-2016

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Jill I've come to trust your recommendations and I've just nailed an ARC. Looking forward to reading it.

Rebecca Thanks, Jill! I didn't realize it wasn't out in the States yet. It's one of my favorites of the year so far.

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