The Summer Garden
Guys, I did it.
Against all odds, despite my hesitations, despite my mental exhaustion, despite some challenging content, I did it.
I finally finished the Bronze Horseman series.
And before I go on to talk about The Summer Garden (and start to accidentally sound negative), can I just take a moment to applaud Paullina Simons. Because oh boy, that was a hellavalotta writing. And I’m sure there was a hellavallota research that went into it, too. Bravo, Simons, bravo. It was such an in depth, complicated and sophisticated story, and I commend you.
If you’ve been following my reviews on this series from the beginning, you’ll realise what a triumph it is for me to have finished it. (The first novel, The Bronze Horseman review can be found here. The second novel, The Bridge to Holy Cross is here).
So the series started in 1941, when World War II started for the Soviet Union. Tatiana was just 16. The final novel concludes in 2000/2001. Yep, I followed the lives of Tatiana and her Alexander from 1941 until their elderly days in the next millennium. Yep, a Bildungsroman if I ever read one. Talk about personal growth and development.
I’m going to try to keep this review devoid of spoilers as much as I can, simply because I want to encourage you to read it. I know, I was singing a pretty different tune when I finished the first novel. And now I don’t know if I want you to read it simply so I can discuss it with someone, or if I actually enjoyed it. I’ve allowed over 24 hours to pass between finishing it and attempting this blog, but I’m still unsure how I feel.
Overall, judging by my tears in the final few chapters, I know I’m sad it’s over. What can I say, if you go through 60 years with the same people, you end up calling them friends. I’m going to miss them, for sure. Just like the end of any great series, I feel loss. I’m never okay with something good being over. I swear, I would’ve kept watching Friends forever if they kept making new episodes.
I will grizzle about the fact that two of the main characters’ names both started with an ‘A’. It made it pretty hard to tell if it was Anthony or Alexander when reading at a fast pace, as I have a tendency to skim over some words. And boy, those names look similar at a glance.
The massive gaps in time were a struggle to deal with. I’d go from hearing about their day to day lives in one year, to skipping forward to the following decade on a particular event, just to skip forward a few more years. I was finding it hard just to keep up with how old the characters were and at what stage of their lives. Plus I felt like I was missing out on so much good stuff. I wanted to know about all the in between stuff as well.
I admit, there was a time I nearly gave up. Due to my own recent personal experiences, when the story started to steer towards the topic of unfaithfulness in a marriage, I nearly threw in the towel. But I pushed through, reading the offending chapters in a single tear-stained night, and I won’t tell you the outcome of that event in the novel. But I persisted despite my upset, and I’m glad I did. It would have been such a waste to give up so close to the end!
One of the things I loved so much about this series was the historical aspect. World War II, to the Cold War, to Korea, to Vietnam. There was plenty of time with characters in direct conflict on the front, as well as working in the military at home. I mean, I don’t know how historically accurate a lot of it was, especially in terms of military speak and weapons and what not, but there was a lot of information. Simons really had her work cut out for her when she planned this one.
Also the depth of her intertextuality was insane. She referenced so many other texts, novels, poems and songs throughout the series. Again, I don’t know how accurate it was, but it seemed to all fit in with the time period in which it was set. The intertextuality was an amazing feat. It also had some stuff in other languages, and I’m literally just assuming what she wrote as the translation was accurate, I didn’t check. For all I know I could be praising her for writing “I like big butts” in a few different languages. But it looked smart and well researched on paper, so it’s a thumbs up from me.
Again, the character of Alexander had moments of being hard to relate to and immoral, making him borderline unlikeable. This was probably done deliberately, to show he was human (and yes, I know he, and Tatiana for that matter, are fictional, before my family remind me again). But it still made it tough to like all of his actions.
Again, there are many digressions to their childhoods. The digressions all end up tying back in to the story, but I still feel like some of them were unnecessary. Although, by this stage of the reading process, I was already lapping up everything I could about Tatiana and Alexander. As I realised my time with this series was running out, I wanted to take in as much as I could. One of the reasons I gave in and kept reading after the first novel was because I missed the characters and needed to see how they ended up. That’s how they suck you in.
The novel begins shortly after Tatiana has returned to the USA with her solider in tow. Alexander now has to come to grips with his new, safe, free life in America (with a three year old son, I might add) after so long being trapped, at war, and Tatiana-less in various parts and fronts of Europe. It was challenging to read, to see how much Alexander struggled to adapt. It was challenging to see how much his relationship with Tatiana was challenged. But as they always do, they made it through.
The Barrington’s travelled around the USA, trying to avoid the wandering eyes of people from focusing on Alexander’s tattoos (forced upon him while he was in POW camps) and inviting too many questions. Questions that would lead to them realising Alexander wasn’t fighting on the American side during World War II, in light of the Cold War and serious mistrust of Russians. Eventually they settled in Arizona, where they remained for the rest of their lives.
Anthony grows up. They struggle for over a decade to conceive another child. Like I said, no major spoilers if I can help it. So maybe they’re successful in the end, maybe they decide to be content with one healthy child. Anthony’s love for his mother is so sweet and unwavering, he even stands up to his dad as a fourteen year old boy when things get abusive towards his mother. Still, often information about Anthony seemed to be added in as an afterthought. “Oh, and during this time, Anthony was staying at a friends house.” Convenient.
Tatiana is different from women during the same time. She stubbornly refuses to give up working even when Alexander strongly insists on providing for her and their family. Other women seem outraged to find that she works, especially once Alexander’s custom home building company takes off and is so successful. Tatiana freshly makes bread every day for her family, well into her old age.
There really are so many different stories going on inside this one big lifetime narrative. The unlikely event of Tatiana blindly going to Europe to find Alexander (in The Bridge to Holy Cross) is replicated in The Summer Garden. In an unlikely scenario, Alexander goes overseas to find Anthony, who went missing (while he was on leave) fighting in Vietnam. Yeah yeah, the power of love and all that, but I find it hard to believe that such amazingly coincidental rescue missions could happen more than once. But hey, it is fiction, I guess.
I think I really started to lose it when I realised that the final chapters were written in present tense, rather than past tense as it had been for the entire series. It was like, this is it. Their story has finally been told, and now this is them, in the moment. Cue tears.
Anyone that’s spoken to me in the last few weeks has probably heard me mention Alexander and Tatiana as if they were real people. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, what happens in my books deeply affects me in my life. So I simply had to explain that if I was distracted, it was because I was thinking about Tatiana and Alexander. And I’m not sorry. And you won’t be sorry if you take my advice and go and read the books. (That’s a lie. You’ll be kind of sorry for about two and a half books. But by half way through the third, you’ll be grateful you stuck by it. And I’ll be waiting by the door for my thank you present, ready to say “I told you so. You’re welcome.”)
Overall, the most challenging series I’ve ever read. The most exhausting, stretched out, complex, difficult series.
But so so intriguing, exciting, informative, rewarding and loveable. Even if for the majority you don’t love it, by the end, when you turn the last page, and realise it really is the last page, you’ll love it. It’s all about how it made me feel at the conclusion of it all. When I realised all that crap I’d read through lead to my final feeling at the end, it was very satisfying and rewarding. I’ve been on one hell of a journey with Tatiana and Alexander.
(Now please please please somebody else read it so I don’t feel alone in this big wide world, and so maybe someone will understand how I’m feeling. Because so far people just kind of shake their heads at me and say “oh, you’re so passionate about your books”, kind of pityingly. Seriously. Please read it. All of it. All 1,935 words of it. I’ll love you forever).
Recommend it? In the end, yes. Yes I do
Read before bed? Yeah, mostly. There’s a bit in the middle that you’ll want to make it the whole way through before putting it down to sleep, though
Cry-worthy? Yes, yes and yes
Re-readable? Some day, once I’ve had enough sleep to replenish my diminished energy
Potential to fall in love with characters? I love them all
Score /10? The Summer Garden gets 8/10 (the highest of the lot)