Book Review: The Summer Guest
by Alison Anderson
Three women share the story of The Summer Guest, an elegant and utterly beguiling novel by Alison Anderson, the acclaimed translator of Muriel Barbery’s hugely overrated The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The first is Katya Kendall, who runs the struggling little Polyana Press in London with her well-meaning husband, each of them hoping to turn their finances around with the translation and publication of a newly-uncovered 1888 Russian journal volume. The second is Ana Harding, the translator the Kendalls hire to work on rendering the journal into English. And the third is the author of the journal herself, Zinaida Lintvaryova, a smart and fiercely independent young doctor who’s afflicted with a disease that’s quickly eroding her eyesight.
She retires with her family to a country estate in Sumy in eastern Ukraine, where she uses a graph device made by her brother to guide her hand as she writes a personal journal. And that journal becomes considerably more lively when the Chekhov family begins to spend its summers on the same estate. The families begin socializing, and a tender relationship – halting and awkward at first, then deepening in unexpected ways – develops between Zinaida and one of the young Chekhov brothers, Anton, already a published poet and poised on the brink of the immortality that would carry his name down to the present day as a master of the stage and the short story.
Katya Kendall wants a publishing success; Ana Harding wants a rejuvenating new project; but of course it’s Zinaida – enthusiastically passionate and bleakly courageous – who carries the novel. It’s through her journal entries that Anderson brings alive a bygone era and, with equal effect, gives readers a very human Chekhov, full of contradictory gestures and personal quirks, as when the families plan an evening in which they’ll hear the latest scores from Tchaikovsky – and perhaps a reading from the withdrawn young writer in their midst:
Natasha, bold as ever, said to Anton Pavlovich that if we were to have Pleshcheyev and Tchaikovsky, then we must surely also have Chekhov. He gave a short laugh, and there was a moment of silence until he agreed that he would read a story from a collection he had just had published, called In the Twilight.
Later she told me he seemed almost annoyed, but flattered in a way as well, that he looked down at his feet before agreeing, as if requesting the consent of his toes.
Ana Harding impulsively sets out to investigate another item in the Sumy diaries: Zinaida’s offhand mentions of the novel that Chekhov is writing. The Sumy diaries themselves are a big enough publishing event, but the possibility of a long-lost Chekhov novel is so alluring it prompts Ana to travel to Ukraine (she was “beginning to feel a genuine affection for the blind narrator and her story,” we’re told) in search of the roots of the whole story. And in perfectly-orchestrated narrative moves, Anderson freights the last act of her novel with a series of revelations that turn the whole plot on its head and then turn it again. It’s a masterfully readable performance.
The novel is written with subdued but richly observed style at times very adroitly reminiscent of Chekhov in English translation. Katya’s subfusc London life is smoothly evoked, and the description of Ana’s lonely life in her garrett at the novel’s beginning works on many levels:
She looked out the window of her attic study. In winter, when the trees were bare, she could see as far as the lake and the mountains beyond. The sky had cleared, and there was a pink wash of sunset on the white peaks. The tree in her neighbor’s yard wore a sleeve of ice. She opened the window, let a breath of frost into the room.
The Summer Guest is a much-heralded thing that entirely lives up to its press, a precisely-observed and elegant novel that manages to please immensely both as a tale of literary sleuthing and a quietly thrilling meditation on the power of literature to pull people out of their lives. A very cheeringly fascinating novel.