The Summer Guest

Written by Alison Anderson
Review by J. Lynn Else

Ukraine, late 1880s: Zinaida Lintvaryova is an educated woman planning to live her life helping others as a country doctor, but at 30 years old, she loses her sight from a brain tumor. To help fill her time, Zinaida begins a diary. Her family retreats to their country estate and, to help with household expenses, rents out their guest house over the summer. A family from Moscow comes to stay, and their son is growing in fame as a writer: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Through Zinaida’s writing, the life of this seminal literary artist is described. Over a century later, two women work to translate and publish Zinaida’s diary. While reading about Zinaida’s life, both women begin to find peace in the midst of their own personal struggles.

The characters in Zinaida’s diary are diverse with multi-layered personalities, and the Ukrainian countryside is vividly described. However, it’s the developing relationship between Zinaida and Chekhov that is the story’s honest, heartfelt magic. As Zinaida remembers her summers and a manuscript Chekhov left unfinished, she thinks, “Sometimes I lie in bed and remember the story and write my own ending, a different one each time. I’m glad he hasn’t finished it yet, that the future can still be written.”

The final plot twist left me slightly unsettled. I understood the author’s reasons for the choice, but it’s not one I favored.  It would have been nice to spend more time with the modern characters so the end surprise would have carried greater emotional weight. These women were simply less well developed.

Anderson’s prose is delightful: “Never let a moment escape that hasn’t been turned over in your hands, inspected for honesty and fullness and awareness,” says Chekhov. It’s fluid in movement, insightful and intelligent in conversation, and richly emotional. This is a well-written, engaging read.