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13 November 2018

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The Summer Guest

Alison Anderson (Harper, $27.99)

About halfway through this excellent novel, as Zinaida Lintvarova’s friendship with Anton Chekhov starts to take root, she cites a poem by Tyutchev, part of which is:

How does one tell the hidden heart?
How might a stranger understand
Whereby you live, and who you are?

It seems the central question of the book, for Zinaida – a gifted doctor – has gone blind and is dying young of a brain tumor. She seeks to understand and encourage the young Chekhov, a writer on the very cusp of his rise to fame, while at the same time Chekhov seeks to understand and appreciate what is in Zinaida’s heart.

And there are at least two other layers, because we are getting to know Zinaida through the pages of her 130-year-old diary, recently discovered by émigré Katya, and being translated by Ana. So we jump back and forth in time, between the stories of Ana, Katya and Zinaida. All three are damaged in some way, lacking something, seeking some form of healing or understanding through Anton Pavlovich.

Chekhov and his family stay with the Lintvaryov family for two summers in Luka, Ukraine (this part of the novel is grounded in fact), and a deep friendship blossoms between the two highly sensitive doctors – Anton and Zinaida. She encourages him in his work, and urges him to undertake the novel he has always dreamed of writing. And this becomes the central mystery of The Summer Guest: did Chekhov in fact pen a novel, and if so, what happened to it?

Anderson paints a vivid picture of the summers at Luka along the River Psyol, with the Chekhov brothers and the doting Maria all in attendance, along with Anton’s parents. They are a boisterous family and fun and interesting to have around, a real tonic for Zinaida, who writes:

The voices of the Chekhov brothers as they laugh and prepare their lines for fishing, little suspecting that it is somewhere deep inside me that they cast their lines. They pull me up toward an ever brighter light. I can almost see it glinting on the surface.

Anderson’s portrait of Anton Pavlovich is tender and endearing. Just as his contemporaries recalled him, he is exceedingly gentle and caring, fun loving and mischievous, yet also profoundly sad. Constantly weighed down by his family duties, Chekhov wants little more than to be someplace calm – like Luka – where he can write:

To be in such soothing surroundings – silence, nature, nothing to trouble one’s thoughts. Just a well-scrubbed room with an old table by the window and a comfortable chair. That’s all that’s needed.

But of course this is disturbed by dramas and tragedy, by secrets and scandals. Anderson’s tale builds to a satisfyingly Chekhovian twist at the end, in which all three women find a satisfying resolution.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2017