Sometimes a monotonous read and at other times quite beautiful, Anderson’s novel focuses on two summers in the life of Anton Chekhov when he stayed with the Lintvaryova family on their estate at Luka near Sumy, Ukraine during the years 1888-89. While Zinaida (Zina) Lintvaryova’s diary of Anton’s visit provides insight into her thoughts and feelings, her chance meeting with the famous young author triggers a stir of sibling loyalties. Although Zina and her sisters, Elena and Natasha, love each other deeply, arguments flare up, emotions rebel, and feelings are outraged in a way that might, in another novel, be exhausting.
The cause for such anxiety is Zina’s early blindness. Trained for a useful life as country doctor, Zina is now a victim of chance misfortune. Trying to cope as best she can, she gets
her kindly brother Pasha to construct a special device so that she can hold her ledger. Thus begins Zina’s diary, a confidential testament to her family for when she’s gone. Eager, innocent, and somewhat plain, Zina’s affection is easily won by the renowned author Anton Pavlovich.
Drawn to his deep, strong voice “as befits a man of words,” Zina’s strong connection to Anton allows her to understand the thoughts he might share, this young man who is so fresh and so spontaneous “before the brand of fame.” Chekhov is on the eve of an extraordinary career, and these are his last weeks of relative anonymity and normality before the outside world begins to claim and celebrate him.
These early scenes establish the complicated attraction between Zina and Anton. Confiding in Zina that he wants to commit to months of work by writing a novel, Anton also tells his frail muse that he wants her to be his ally in the process. From the many sunny afternoons gathering memories along the path “that lift like flowers to her face,” Zina decides to make the completion of Anton’s novel her prime purpose--something that she could reasonably strive for. She also wants to do everything she can to encourage, inspire, and support the famous author.
Anderson frames Zina’s diary around the travails of Katya and Peter Kendall, who in 2014 are running a small, flailing publishing house in London. They’re about to publish Zina’s diaries and have asked Ana Harding, an American woman currently living in France, to be the translator. Buoyed by
disappointed, fanatical desperation, Katya and Peter hope that by bringing Zina and her “famous guest” back to life, they will be able to get back on financial track. Contrasting to the Kendalls' dilemma, the focus of the novel shifts delicately to Ana’s life, her reaction when she learns about the authenticity of Zina’s words, the possible existence of Anton’s unpublished novel, and her own special quest to make ends meet. Reeling from a messy divorce, Ana has tried to rescue the good memories of those early years in Paris. Now with only one close friend in Geneva, Ana has found herself settling deeper and deeper into self-imposed isolation.
For me the novel works best when it focuses on Katya and Ana’s stories rather than on Zina’s diary which is often weighed down by Zina and Anton’s voices--their days sitting by the Luka Estate’s lake where they admire summer’s strawberries and endlessly talk about the travails of the local peasant farmers. From Zina’s terrible insomnia to her dreams of the safety of warm and benevolent strangers--especially Anton, whom she’s drawn to for “reasons you might deny out of modesty, or perhaps of a truth I do not see”--Anderson’s novel is highly reminiscent of Byatt’s
Possession. Part mystery, part love story, part diary and part narrative, at the end of the story, Anderson reveals her sudden twist in a narrative hook that left me feeling duped by the implied promise of her beloved writer’s famous novel.
As the shadow of Zina’s soon-to-be-famous summer guest falls onto the page, Ana befriends the diarist in that odd way of translators. Meanwhile, Katya and Peter’s fractured marriage plays out, reflecting the last moments of their privileged intimacy and a summer that is coming to an end. Feeling both contemporary and historical, Anderson is good at offering up a literary mystery of sorts, but the novel is often tedious save the clever, bittersweet finale in which Zina’s obituary finally brings the story full circle.