The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff explores the bonds between sisters, particularly twins, and how those bonds can be tested and crack beneath the pressures of war and persecution. The Nowak twins live in a small fictitious town in Poland, Biekowice, and are charged with raising their two younger sisters and brother after the death of their father. Ruth is considered the more feminine and nurturing of the sisters, while Helena was adventurous, gathering wood and setting animal traps with their father from a young age. Ruth was the first to fall in love and have her heart broken, and this heartbreak helped to define her views on family and loyalty, while Helena has yet to fall in love and does the best she can to provide for the family as the Nazis move across Poland and take over not only Krakow, but smaller villages along the way.
“As I stroll beneath the timeless canopy of clouds, the noises of the highway and the planes overhead fade. I am no longer shuffling and bent, but a young woman striding upward through the woods, surrounded by those who once walked with me.” (page 8 ARC)
Jenoff is a talented story-teller and her ability to transport readers into the harsh conditions of a rural town in Poland during WWII is nothing short of miraculous. Readers will feel the biting cold, the harsh stares of neighbors looking for information to sell to the Nazis to get ahead, and feel the warmth of the Nowak family even as it struggles to stay together. Ruth weighs loyalty above everything, while Helena places her family’s happiness above her own for so long that when she sees happiness for herself within her grasp, she wants to hold it close and not have to share it. Like all sisters, Ruth and Helena share the burdens of bringing up their siblings alone, keeping food on the table and checking on their mother who is in a Krakow hospital.
Helena stumbles upon an American paratrooper in the woods and the Nowak family’s trajectory becomes skewed. Jenoff has created twin sisters who are connected but seeking their own individuality while keeping their family together. These dynamic women must face their own fears, as well as the reality of the WWII knocks on their door, literally. The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff demonstrates how the unexpected can be a blessing and a curse, how families can pull together even when they don’t really like one another at that moment, and how guilt can compel us forward to make things right.
This book was phenomenal, well told, and would be a great pick for book clubs — also it is likely to make the 2014 Best of list.
About the Author:
21st book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Poland)
31st book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.
26th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.