The Summer Guest: A Novel

Image of The Summer Guest: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 23, 2016
Harper Collins
Reviewed by: 

Whether or not readers are familiar with Chekhov, historical fiction lovers will want to read The Summer Guest in its entire page-turning splendor.

Ana is a translator given the recently discovered diary of Zinaida Mikhailovna and is asked by a small, struggling press for her English translation. Katya, part owner of Polyana Press with her husband, asks Ana to keep the diary secret while she’s working on it. The diary promises so much: an entre for Ana into the upper echelons of the translating world with prizes and stipends; reviving Katya’s business; and an unfinished Chekhov manuscript, perhaps still hidden.

Ana and readers are transported to Luka with its beautiful Pysol, earnest peasants, and the fragrant summers. A relationship blooms between Zinaida Mikhailovna, who describes herself as plain, and the handsome Chekov. The relationship is one of mutual trust and understanding, of support and friendship, though there is some obvious tension that suggesting there could have been, or should have been, more.

Zinaida is a young, unmarried doctor who has gone blind. She spends her days on the veranda with her loyal dog and family members who read to her or sit and chat. Disliking idleness, Zinaida takes up writing in a diary with the help of a ruler to guide her lines, as a way of preserving meaning to her days (once filled with diagnoses and prognoses of the many town members). Soon Zinaida’s family is playing host to Anton Chekov, his boisterous brothers, and the rest of his family over the course of two summers, and this Katya’s and Ana’s main interest in Zinaida’s diary—at first.

The novel is beautiful and just as a reader is lulled into the enchanting world of Zinaida Mikhailovna, she is taken out to confront the modern day with the struggles in the Ukraine and bills to pay, the worries of a next paycheck.

The story switches between the journal written in 1888–1890 and modern day. Viewpoints also shift between Zinaida, Ana, and Katya as their lives play out across the page. Each woman has her own hardships. Zinaida finds strength in her conversations with Chekhov and her family, but Ana and Katya rely on Zinaida to pull them through their days. Ana is living paycheck to paycheck, wistful for her youth spent in the Ukraine and the men she knew and loved, hoping for validation in her life’s work as a translator. Katya, once a poet and revolutionary, misses her mother in Russia and the marriage she still believes in. The Summer Guest would have been entirely enjoyable as a fictional diary without the intrusions of other characters.

The reader is given small twists and turns as Ana begins to uncover more of the history behind the diary, and readers may equally feel Ana’s own disappointment with the many truths revealed and the surprise of Katya’s final letter, echoing Zinaida’s.

Readers familiar with Chekhov will enjoy this fictional retelling of his summers in Luka as they place ideas and names into the canon. Fans of Russian literature will want to read this story for Zinaida Mikhailovna’s diary entries (though the prose is nowhere as lengthy or discursive as Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky), reminiscent of the eminent authors for the everyday concerns of the working class, of the meaning of art and the worthiness of science, and the entrancing characters.