Zinaida Lintvaryova lives with her sisters, mother, brothers, and sister in law on the family estate in Luka, Ukraine. She trained as a doctor but has had to give up her practice because she is now blind and suffers from headaches and seizures as a result of a brain tumor. Despite this terminal diagnosis, Zinaida remains engaged in life as much as she is able. She is intelligent and thoughtful. With the help of a bar to keep her writing straight, she has started keeping a diary to pass on to her unborn niece so that she may attain some measure of immortality. As she starts to write in her diary, it comes to pass that the Chekhov family arrives to spend the summer in the estate's guest house. Zinaida becomes close to Anton Pavlovich, writing of their intellectually stimulating and philosophically interesting conversations, each playing a vital role in expanding how the other looks at the world. Zinaida is not a muse per se but she does encourage Chekhov to challenge himself, to foster curiousity, and to write outside his comfort level. In Anton Pavlovich's narrative visual descriptions for the unseeing Zinaida, he truly sees what is most important and wondrous in that which he observes, an important gift that shines through in his own writing.
In her journal, Zinaida also mentions a novel she has encouraged him to undertake. But today Chekhov is known for his plays and short stories and no known novel exists. The fact that the diary discusses its existence would be enough to set the literary world on fire. The diary itself, with its insights into the famous writer, during the 2 summers just before his literary star launched into the firmament, is amazing on its own as well though. That it is in the possession of a tiny, British, literary press on the verge of bankruptcy is baffling. Katya Kendall, a Russian emigre married to Peter, a Brit, hopes that this literary discovery will be enough to save the failing press and maybe even her increasingly distant relationship with her husband. She engages a translator to translate the original Russian into English but then becomes almost completely incommunicado about the diary. Her worries about Peter's drinking and their tenuous financial situation are in a race with her desire to bring the diary to the world and reveal the possibility of a Chekhovian novel before time runs out.
Ana Harding is the translator hired to work on Zinaida's dairy. She is newly divorced, a little bit lonely, and living quietly and frugally in the French countryside. She is a very good translator, careful to maintain the integrity of the works she does but also to render their spirit into the second language as well. In the course of her translating, Ana becomes completely captivated by the diary and Zinaida Lintvaryova and once she reads the mention of Chekhov's lost novel, she is excited and just a little obsessed with uncovering this literary mystery.
Anderson deftly handles the weaving together of these three major plot threads, pulling the reader from one story line just as tension builds, ensuring that the reader must keep turning pages, loathe to leave each of the three stories in turn but always glad to return to a previous thread. The diary portion of the novel is based on the true fact that Chekhov did spend two summers early in his writing career at the farm in Luka, fishing and enjoying the countryside away from the demands of the cities and his increasing readership. The conversations between Zinaida and Anton Pavlovich are incredibly insightful and philosophical, raising deep and important ideas like writing, family, and life and death. The plots dealing with Katya and Ana are slightly secondary to the diary but they are equally well rendered and add their own discussion to the difficulty of making a living in the arts, what is important in life, and the influence and value of words and writing. The ending of the novel is masterful and well earned. In the diary segments, the Russian habit of using names and also diminutives for the same person might add a touch of difficulty for some Western readers but there is a handy list in the front of the book to help keep confusion to a minimum. Beautifully rendered and exquisitely plotted, the novel will appeal to those who enjoy literary treasure hunts, those who read and appreciate Russian authors, especially Chekhov, and those who appreciate well-crafted writing, particularly when it gives a small insight into the publishing or translating world.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.