The Winter Guest (The Winter Guest, #1) By Pam Jenoff

Riddikulus. Despite the assurances and serious name-dropping in the bio and acknowledgments that Jenoff received a history master’s at Cambridge, worked in the Pentagon, and witnessed the most senior levels of government, The Winter Guest is astonishingly inaccurate, far-fetched, fanciful and implausible.

I'm frequently disgusted by the contemporary novels that romanticize or sentimentalize this time period. Cloying romances masquerading as gritty historical fiction where the war functions primarily as a dramatic backdrop are the usual culprits. Travesties such as The Nightingale are prime examples that perpetuate this attitude which I find, quite frankly, disrespectful (see my thoughts here). Unsurprisingly, The Winter Guest is no exception; it is little more than your saccharine and hackneyed run of the mill WW2 romance. It offers no unique or compelling insight into an already well-trodden time period.

For someone with a master’s in history, Jenoff appears to have little understanding of the linear events of WW2. The plot is fundamentally flimsy, relying extensively on American involvement… in 1940. America didn’t touch Europe with a stick until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour at the fag-end of 1941. So why, then, would America have any incentive to interfere in distant European affairs and risk lives if the country itself weren’t affected? Besides from its being intrinsically implausible, the plot is a meandering and predictable slog that never achieves anything. I skim-read from about twenty five percent, and, as far as I can tell, missed very little. It relies on convenient plot ‘twists’, including my favourite: the classic Measure for Measure bed trick. This is why twins get those ‘fantasy’ jokes. This is why people make fun of chick lit.

Perhaps a lukewarm or even an aimless plot can be excused if were to be redeemed by another facet of the novel. This, however, was not the case. The writing is hardly refined artistry; in fact, it’s amateur.

There was something dangerous about him. There was something enigmatic about him that made her want to follow him into his strange unknown world.

Yes, that is an actual line. Jenoff’s prose is dependent on tedious and uninspiring exposition which gives the reader very little credit. The characterization is equally as poor; the sister dynamic (supposedly integral) is unconvincing and lacks rigor. I’d go so far as to say that Helena and Ruth were virtually indistinguishable. The relationships (and narrative overall) are startlingly devoid of emotion, with the notable exception of sisterly angst and cattiness. Jenoff neglects to add depth to any one of the topics she touches upon, failing to explore the complexity of rape, assault and sacrifice. The novel as a whole lacks gravity; nothing was ever at stake. Helena is sucked into the resistance, untried, in the most stupidly simplistic manner, and earns reprisal from rules with her sex appeal. Does this give her much agency, really? What about the important and more admirable qualities real life resistance fighters would have possessed, like cunning, intelligence or reasoning? She also frequents the Jewish quarter, ghetto and hospital unquestioned and without much incident. Not only is this entirely unrealistic, it belies the tone of the subject matter and means that the novel is certainly never emotionally or psychologically compelling.

I wasn’t expecting much and that’s exactly what I got: not much. ‘A family torn apart by war’ runs the synopsis. No, bitchy sisters argue over only available male and agonize over their dysfunctional family, torn apart by daddy issues. Paperback Set in 1940, The Winter Guest is a hauntingly evocative tale of two sisters – twins – who are struggling to care for their three younger siblings in rural Poland at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. Their father is dead, and their mother is ill in a hospital in Krakow, and the two girls, Helena and Ruth, are trying to fulfil their mother’s last wish by keeping the family together and keeping them all safe. But with severe food shortages, and the ever-present threat of the encroaching German army, life is tough and getting tougher.

While identical in outward appearance, Helena and Ruth are actually as different as chalk and cheese. Helena is a bit of a tomboy and was her father’s companion of choice when it came to hunting expeditions and performing tasks around the home. Ruth has always been regarded as the prettier of the two and is the one imbued with the more traditionally feminine traits – so the pair has fallen into the roles of male and female parents, with Ruth responsible for running the home and the bulk of the child-rearing, while Helena chops wood, fixes things, and hunts for food.

The girls are close – as twins often are – but there are lots of resentments bubbling under the surface, too. Helena resents Ruth for being their mother’s favourite, while Ruth envies the fact that Helena gets to escape their small dwelling every so often. It’s not that Ruth particularly wants to be out trudging through the forest on the weekly visit to the hospital, or out in the cold chopping firewood, it’s more that she is jealous of that little bit of freedom and time to herself that Helena has at those times.

The delicate balance between the sisters is further upset when, on her way back from visiting her mother, Helena finds a wounded American soldier in the woods, and decides to help him, without telling her sister and knowing that doing so could endanger her family. The young man is called Sam Rosen, and is one of a small group of American soldiers who were parachuted into Poland in order to make contact with the Polish partisans (which explains the presence of an American soldier in Poland in 1940, more than a year before the US entered the war).

Helena takes Sam to a small, dilapidated chapel and tends to his injuries as best she can. Over the next few weeks, she visits him as often as she is able, taking what small quantities of food she can spare, and they develop a fondness for each other. The development of their relationship more or less takes place off screen, as one chapter ends with Helena’s feeling an attraction for Sam, and the next begins a few weeks later, during the course of which they have their first kiss. I recognise that this is a work of Historical Fiction rather than an Historical Romance – but the romance is actually quite important as the catalyst for certain decisions and actions that occur in the latter stages of the novel, which makes me think that it should have been developed a little more strongly in order to give greater weight to those events.

Fortunately, however, by the time Helena and Sam have decided they’re in love, I’d been drawn in by the dynamic between Helena and Ruth, Helena’s growing conviction that trying to stay out of things isn’t going to save them, and the potential impact of the discovery she makes concerning her mother – so I was able to live with the lack of relationship development and immerse myself in the rest of the story.

I found the book a bit slow to start and it took me a while to get into it, but there’s no denying Ms Jenoff’s skill in setting the scene for her story. The undercurrents running between the sisters are quickly established and her descriptions of the deprivations felt throughout rural Poland and the suspicion and fear that are spreading throughout the community are very strongly realised. The way that Helena comes to the gradual understanding of the truth of what is happening to the Jewish population is excellently handled, and the pervading atmosphere of paranoia jumps off the page.

The sibling rivalry between Ruth and Helena is very well-written, and actually feels quite true-to-life in that sometimes, their petty jealousies eclipse the bigger picture for both of them. When Helena has to tell Ruth about Sam, Ruth immediately thinks that Helena is planning to leave with him, and in her determination not to let that happen, sets in motion a train of events that will have tragic consequences.

While the story is engrossing, there are some aspects of it that are not particularly successful. I’ve already mentioned that the romance isn’t very convincing, and neither is the way that Helena is able to so easily contact the Resistance in Krakow, to ask for help in getting Sam to safety. She’s been told that the churches are generally used as meeting places, so she goes to one and asks a random man – and voilà – the resistance leader no less, makes contact with her. The story is book-ended by two short sections set in modern-day New York, with the Epilogue very effectively tying up the loose ends left in the final chapter – but I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated, because the book “proper” ends on a cliffhanger, and we don’t get to see it resolved, or get much information as to what happened in the sixty-odd years between the two chapters.

Fortunately, those weaknesses didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the novel, which is intelligently written and, after the first few chapters, well-paced. Ms. Jenoff doesn’t sugar-coat the privations suffered by the family or the horror of what is happening to both the Jews and the Poles under the Nazi occupation, but the descriptions are subtle rather than graphic, and are often the more effective for being understated. After a slow start, The Winter Guest turned into a gripping read which packed quite an emotional punch, especially in the later part of the story, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for an absorbing and informative piece of World War Two-set historical fiction. Paperback I just can't with this book. I wanted to love it, I really did. Historical fiction is my thing and I'll try anything centered around World War II. I also received a copy of this through the Goodreads FirstReads program so I really wanted to be able to like it and leave a review saying so.

But I can't.

I can say that the story could have been absolutely amazing.

But it wasn't.

To begin with, the first chapter (after the introduction) sets the story in 1940. And then Sam Rosen shows up. Sam is a downed American airman in the Polish countryside.

The trouble with this is simple... America was not involved in World War II in 1940. Pearl Harbor happened on December 7, 1941 and then, only then, did Americans start flying over Europe. And Sam's story just snowballs out of control from there. He's an airman, Jewish, trying to contact partisans in Czechoslovakia, an enlisted man because he killed his father with a baseball bat, and all important to the war effort.

No. It's just too much.

I can't help wondering why Jenoff didn't make him an RAF airman and British, because they were involved in the war in 1940, instead. That would have gone a long way to getting the story off on the right foot for me.

I love history, I love facts. There were too many inconsistencies in historical fact for me. And it didn't help that Jenoff says in the acknowledgments that she worked at the Pentagon. I can't help but think someone at the Pentagon should a) know America's role in the war in 1940 and/or b) do better research.

The heart of the story, though, is Helena Nowak. And even her story is too hard to believe.

She's a daddy's girl who discovers, completely by accident, that she's got more in common with the Jewish Sam than she imagines. And I don't mean just falling in love with him. She fights with her twin sister, Ruth, a lot. Mostly about Sam. Fighting between sisters is believable, absolutely.

But I gave up with a hundred pages left in the story when Ruth, ever the possibly jealous shrew, took advantage of the darkness in Sam's hiding place and pretended to be Helena. It was too much. I tried reading the epilogue then, to get myself interested in the hundred remaining pages, but that only made it worse.

Were it not for this last head smacking moment, I'd give the book two stars. Paperback Pam Jenoff has built a strong reputation writing about World War II and its lingering effects on ordinary people. In THE WINTER GUEST, she returns to Poland in 1940, site of her bestseller, The Kommandant’s Girl, to tell the story of Helena and Ruth, twin sisters living with their younger siblings in a village near Krakow, as the Nazis seize control.

The setting is key. Isolated from the rest of the country, like many rural Poles, Helena and Ruth struggle for daily survival among food rationing, suspicious neighbors, and the looming threat of winter. Their mother lies dying in a Jewish hospital in Krakow — the only place that can care for her — and stalwart Helena makes the long trek to the city every week to visit her, while introspective Ruth stays behind to tend the children, nursing a recent heartbreak. Then Helena stumbles upon an injured American paratrooper in the woods and decides to hide him; this act of mercy sets the stage for a passionate affair and betrayal that changes the sisters’ lives forever.

Ms. Jenoff excels in her vivid portrayal of the deprivation and corrosive fear that afflicted those dwelling under Nazi aggression. The sisters are inherently different, convincingly drawn within the paranoia and seething anti-Semitism coursing under their village’s façade. Their claustrophobic insularity, however, can dampen the narrative at moments - until Helena awakens to possibilities beyond those she has known during her increasingly disquieting trips to Krakow. Her discovery of a secret and the tragic events that ensue shatter her confidence; as she fights to find meaning in a world descending into darkness, The Winter Guest proves compulsive in its race to a desperate denouement. The finale offers a moving testament to the suffering that so many endured during the war.

This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review, August 2014.
Paperback Such a beautiful story of two sisters in World War II Poland. Jenoff is a wonderful storyteller, painting vivid images of life during the war. I learned quite a bit from THE WINTER GUEST and was touched time and again by the plight of the characters and the atrocities of war. Can't wait to read many, many more novels by Pam Jenoff. Paperback

A stirring novel of first love in a time of war and the unbearable choices that could tear sisters apart, from the celebrated author of The Kommandant's Girl.

Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.

Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades. The Winter Guest (The Winter Guest, #1)

The book is written in a way that doesn't make it exciting or interesting, thing are just happening, slowly.

Helena and Ruth are twin sister from a small village in Poland during the WWII. With their mother hospitalized they had to start taking care of their three younger siblings. The war is getting closer and supplies are scarce. Things are very dangerous and people are disappearing everyday. As the sisters struggle in their daily life, the rivalry and jealousy between them affects some of their actions and might prove dangerous after Helena saves an American solider and tries to help him.

One would think that with a storyline like this it would be a really emotional and interesting read. Unfortunately it was flat and emotionless. The conversation were dull and the actions were slow. Some of the events that happens deserved a better reaction from me but I just didn't feel. I couldn't feel the romance or any sympathy towards the characters, except maybe for Helena at times.

An investigation in 2013 starts the book and then the story unfolds as one of the characters remembers the events, but at the end I didn't really see the significance of this investigation and why it was a big deal. There were other things that could have been investigated that might have had a more emotional response from the readers.

The accurate history and the events that unfolds makes this book gloomy and the writing makes it somber.

This review is for a free copy courtesy of Harlequin via NetGalley.

Paperback I rarely waste too much time on books I don't like, but I was curious enough about what was going to happen to Sam and Helena in this book, that even though I disliked it already at 17%, I kept chugging along, only to come to regret that decision.

Having read and enjoyed for the most part Ms. Jenoff's work before (see my review of the Ambassador's Daughter), I am surprised to be saying this, but I hated this book. Been a while since I disliked a book as much as I dislike this one, especially one I read all the way through. That being said, however, the fact I feel so strongly about it and what the characters do within its pages is actually a point in the author's favor. At least it evoked strong emotion in me.

I enjoyed Helena and her romance with Sam and this being a Harlequin book, I expected a nice romance, but something happens in the story that makes what starts beautiful turn into ugliness. I couldn't stomach it. There's a lot of things I can handle, but this was a sick twist I seriously disliked to the point it ruined the story for me. It was also utterly ridiculous. What woman is overtaken by lust at the sight of a man she doesn't know, who's hairy, stinky, and starved?

That being said, there's a war on, all right. It's Poland and the Germans/Nazis have taken over, the Jewish community is disbanded, trains are roaring past full of Jews on their way to the camps, there's very little food to be had, but in the middle of all this trauma and war, the book focuses on a stupid sibling rivalry and loads of resentment between two twin sisters. Sadly, that's where all the emotion of the story is: resentment between sisters. Helena resents that Ruth has been coddled, favored, considered prettier, etc. Ruth resents Helena having a romance while she's stuck at home raising three kids due their being orphaned. And it goes on and on.

I loathed, with an extreme passion, Ruth. What a horrid woman. I wanted to gouge her eyes out and sadly, she's half the story.

There are bad things happening and Helena witnesses them, yet there's so little emotion here that even things that should have been frightening just fell flat. Example: the hospital. You hide under the bed while a nurse is raped on top of it and it warrants a mere three or four sentences? Then it's never mentioned again? I would think the trauma of that would evoke a lot more reaction. As I said above, there's a lot more emotion when it comes to the sisters hating on each other or blabbering about their family history than actual traumatic events.

And Helena just traipses around all this danger unscathed. That was also a killer. I was like, seriously? Nobody stops to check your papers? You just waltz around the Jewish hospital, the ghetto, the blackmarket, and nothing happens? It's WWII, lady...and you're occupied.

Full review and slight spoiler: Paperback Without a doubt I thoroughly enjoyed it. I am very much an historical fiction aficionado but this one really took the cake It was so well written and incredibly well timed—I loved it.

The storyline was gentle but at times very very harsh. In the end it was a love story, with the final chapter being superior Paperback This is an amazing story of Helena and Ruth, 18 year old identical twins raising their three younger siblings in a small town in Poland during WW2. They are identical in looks but they are very different from each other in their behaviors. Ruth is more domestic and lady like, Helena is definitely more adventurous and used to the outdoors. As they grow older, they begin to have secrets from each other.

When Helena finds an injured American soldier who parachuted out of his plane, the story of struggling to survive really begins and the sisters have to learn to work together or let their secrets get in their way of survival. ( Helena keeps the American soldier a secret for a long time.) Of course food is being rationed, black markets spring up and medicine is in short supply. The Germans are everywhere and sadly, the Jewish people are sent to concentration camps. The world as Helena and Ruth knew it is gone. Will they find a way of surviving and keeping themselves alive as well as their younger siblings and the American soldier? Hard choices have to be made by everyone... will they make the right decisions in time? Only by reading this fascinating story will you find the answers!

It's a fast paced, emotionally moving book that will keep you turning the pages and one that will stay with you for a long time. Be sure to read the Acknowledgements in the back of the book to learn about the importance of identification of bones as well as how Pam Jenoff got her idea for this book! This is my first book by her, but I already have two more of her books ready to read soon!! I can't wait... hopefully they will be as good as this one!! It's an easy 5 shiny stars rating from me and I very highly recommend this emotionally moving book to all!! Happy Reading, everyone!! 😊📖🍀💜🕊️ Paperback Set during the Nazi occupation of Poland during WWII, eighteen-year-old Nowak twins, Helena and Ruth, are living in a small village in Poland. They are struggling to keep their family, which includes their three younger siblings, together. We get to know both sisters throughout the story and see how each one faces important decisions and challenges that are put before them, choices which will eventually draw them apart. An interesting WWII setting and a bit of romance too, make this a very enjoyable read. Paperback


Summary Í E-book, or Kindle E-pub ✓ Pam Jenoff