Most of the audiobooks I listen to are middle-grade or teen/YA novels, but once in a while I listen to an adult book. Since I had heard good things about the novel The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, I was excited for the chance to listen to it last month. I was completely transported by the audiobook to another time and place and thoroughly enjoyed the journey.
The structure of this novel is unusual, as the narrative moves back and forth between two modern women, in England and France, and a third woman writing in a diary in Ukraine in 1888. It is also fiction that is based in historical fact. The story centers around the fact that Anton Chekhov and his family spent the summer of 1888 in a guest house in eastern Ukraine on the property of the Lintvaryova family. The two families developed close friendships and continued to write to each other after that summer.
In this novel, the 1888 diary chronicling that summer was written by Zinaida, the oldest of the Lintvaryova family and a practicing doctor until she developed a terminal illness which first took her sight. With the help of a ruler, Zinaida starts a journal that summer, to help occupy her time and also as a gift to leave behind for her family.
When the Chekhovs arrive to rent the cottage on their farm, the families immediately like each other and strike up friendships that will last well beyond the summer. However, an especially close friendship develops between Zinaida and Anton. They take long walks on the estate, and he describes their surroundings to her, offering to be her eyes for her. Anton talks to Zinaida of his writing, and they both share their experiences of being doctors, as their friendship grows deeper.
Back in the modern day, Katya Kendall and her husband are struggling to keep their small publishing house in London alive. They hope that publishing Zinaida’s diary, with its many details of Anton Chekhov, his friendship, and his writing, is just the boost they need to save their business. In addition, Zinaida’s journal says that Anton – renowned for his plays and short stories – was working on a novel that summer, a novel that was never published. To find and publish an original Chekhov novel would be a publishing coup that would cause a great stir in the literary world.
Katya hires Ana Harding, a translator living in France, to translate the diary into English. Ana has to sign a secrecy agreement, as Katya and her husband want to keep everything quiet until they unveil the book to the public. As Ana translates Zinaida’s words, she finds herself immersed in that world and fascinated by the possibility of an as-yet-unknown Chekhov novel and begins her own investigation.
This novel is beautifully written with lyrical sentences that seem to match the characters and the time. It was especially good on audio, listening to the accents and pronunciation of the Ukrainian names and a few other words; listening to it makes it an immersive experience. My family is from Ukraine so that made this book even more special to me. The only downside of the audio was that I kept hearing passages that I wanted to write in my Quote Journal, so I jotted down the chapters (journal dates) and got a hard copy from the library (which also contains a helpful Cast of Characters at the beginning).
The story moves back and forth between the three women and between 1888 and 2014 so that the reader learns more about Zinaida along with Ana, as she translates the diary section by section. There is a bit of a mystery imbedded in the story, as Ana wonders about the possible novel and sets out to find out more. The modern-day story of the diary’s translation and upcoming publication form a framework, but the bulk of the novel is historical fiction, set in that long ago hot summer with a famous literary star, an unknown woman who is near the end of her life, and their engrossing, heartwarming conversations. All in all, The Summer Guest is absorbing and completely mesmerized me from start to finish.