The Winter Guest

Written by Pam Jenoff
Review by C.W. Gortner

Pam Jenoff has built a strong reputation writing about World War II and its terrible effects on ordinary people. In The Winter Guest, she returns to Poland in 1940, the site of her bestseller, The Kommandant’s Girl, to tell the story of Helena and Ruth, twin sisters living with their younger siblings in a village near Krakow, as the Nazis seize control.

The setting is key. Isolated from the rest of the country, like many rural Poles, Helena and Ruth struggle for daily survival amongst food rationing, suspicious neighbors, and the looming threat of winter. Their mother lies dying in a Jewish hospital in Krakow – the only place that can care for her – and stalwart Helena makes the long trek to the city every week to visit her, while introspective Ruth stays behind to tend the children, nursing a recent heartbreak. Then Helena stumbles upon an injured American paratrooper in the woods and decides to hide him; this act of mercy sets the stage for a passionate affair and betrayal that changes the sisters’ lives forever.

Jenoff excels in her vivid portrayal of the deprivation and corrosive fear that afflicted those dwelling under Nazi aggression. The sisters are inherently different, convincingly drawn within the paranoia and seething anti-Semitism coursing under their village’s façade. This claustrophobic insularity, however, can at times dampen the narrative, which quickens through Helena’s awakening to possibilities beyond those she has known and increasingly disquieting trips to Krakow, where her discovery of a secret and witnessing of tragic events shatter her confidence. In the end, The Winter Guest proves compulsive as it races to its desperate denouement, the finale a moving testament to the suffering endured during the war.