The Winter Guest begins with an elderly Helena Nowak in a New York senior living center, going through a day like any other when the past she has ardently kept hidden from the outside world comes knocking on her door with the appearance of a police officer and a female rabbi questioning her about the remains of a body found near the village in Poland where she grew up. With this shocking discovery the reader is thrown back in time to Poland in 1940 and meets a young Helena as she and her siblings are struggling to survive amidst the uncertainty and danger of a country with war threatening to cross its border.
Helena and her twin sister, Ruth, are endeavoring to raise their siblings and keep them safe during Nazi occupation now that their father is dead and their mother is in a sanitarium. With the stress of their daily lives the two sisters have grown apart, letting secret desires and jealousies fester. But Helena is hiding one secret that could put them all in danger.
Helena has discovered an injured Jewish American soldier named Sam in the woods near their home and has agreed to help him hide and get in contact with the resistance. As she does so a passionate, unexpected love blossoms between the two, a love that seems nearly impossible given the state they find themselves in. But Sam is determined they will find a way to be together and to get themselves and Helena’s family out safely.
When Ruth discovers Helena’s dangerous secret she is hurt and angry and all the stress they have been living in and the jealousies between them boil over. Believing Helena has stolen a life and a love that should be hers, Ruth commits two egregious acts of betrayal that threaten to tear them all apart forever. When the story comes back around to the elderly Helena, the reader is stunned to see just how devastating the consequences of betrayal can be.
Simply put, The Winter Guest is top shelf historical fiction. From page one the reader is grabbed by the story and not let go until they turn the last page. I was astonished at how the author was able to keep the tension and desperation building, little by little, until you are breathless seeing these characters struggle to survive and waiting for the final shoe to drop. And when it does drop and you discover what ramifications all of their secrets and actions elicited…it’s both heartbreaking and touching.
One of the aspects of The Winter Guest I found so fascinating was this idea that secrets – whether kept to try and protect others, to hurt others or to simply keep something to oneself – can have unimagined and far reaching consequences. There are so many secrets being kept by the various characters in the story and the outcomes that immerge from the secrets are devastating.
The other aspect I enjoyed most was watching how this kind of constant and abject stress people experience during wartime can so exacerbate what we as humans go through each and every day. The way Helena and Ruth initially argue and pick at each other is just like any other siblings would do. Just like all siblings they are jealous of what the other one gets but protective and loving at the same time. The war and the suffering caused by it seem to magnify these feelings, making them all seem more poignant and stronger and breeding distrust and anger where normally there might not have been. This really made me think about the fact that none of us really know how we would react to the sort of situations that these characters went through until we had to face them ourselves. This made it easy to relate to those actions that under different circumstances could seem reprehensible.
The Winter Guest is the kind of book you find yourself sneaking peeks at under your desk when you should be working, all because you simply cannot let the characters go. Now finished with the story I actually miss the characters! I cannot wait to read more by Pam Jenoff, her writing is exceptional!
Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harlequin MIRA. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.