*Possible Spoilers for those unfamiliar with the first two books*
The Summer Garden completes the trilogy that Paullina Simons began in The Bronze Horseman and continued in The Bridge to Holy Cross (UK title is Tatiana and Alexander), bringing to an end the story of lovers Tatiana and Alexander. The Bronze Horseman concerns the genesis of the love affair, when Alexander, a young soldier in the Red Army falls in love at first sight with Tatiana Metanova- the sister of his girlfriend, Dasha at the beginning of the second World War. The lovers first challenge is attempting to navigate their relationship to avoid hurting Dasha with whom Tatiana is very close. However that quickly takes a backseat when the siege of Leningrad begins and Tatiana fights for her own survival and that of her family. Eventually Tatiana and Alexander marry but Alexander is called back to the front- Tatiana follows him until Alexander realizes that a secret from his past is putting both of their lives in danger. In desperation he fakes his own death (which he believes is imminent) and assures that a pregnant and grieving Tatiana will give birth to her child in America. The sequel begins soon after- we learn that though Alexander has been taken prisoner he has survived and is desperately trying to get to Tatiana. Meanwhile a heartbroken Tatiana tries to make a life for herself and her newborn son in America, but is tormented by her lack of closure regarding Alexander's death. In desperation Tatiana leaves her son, Anthony with a friend, joins the Red Cross and goes to a recently defeated Berlin where she discovers Alexander in a POW camp. Alexander and Tatiana succeed in a desperate escape from Europe and are reunited with their son in America where they begin their lives together.
Thus, the Summer Garden begins when Tatiana and Alexander, both barely into their 20's have survived the worst that the twentieth century, and humanity itself can offer. Their next challenge comes from one another-they must learn to adjust or a life where they can share a relationship openly, where they don't face death and destruction on a daily basis. After facing brutal battles, POW camps, and the horrors of the Holocaust, Alexander fears that he is too emotionally damaged to be a good husband and father. Meanwhile Tatiana misinterprets Alexander's emotional distance as a boredom with her and their son, Anthony. As the pair attempt to find a balance in their new life, cold war paranoia threatens their family. The first half of the novel deals with these very day to day challenges over the course of the next 3 decades. As readers we come to know Tatiana and Alexander as they learn to like each other as well as love each other, and deal with challenges that every couple, everywhere face. We get to know these heroic characters in a "normal" life as well as in life and death situations, and we feel that we know the characters better for it.
The second half of the novel deals with life and death once again. When Anthony grows up as an American, he reveres his father to whom he is very similar. To his parents dismay he volunteers for active duty in Vietnam where he goes missing. Unsure if he has been taken prisoner or gone AWOL, the family is in a horrible limbo until a letter Anthony wrote to a former lover gives them an obscure clue. Now Alexander leaves his beloved Tatiana with their other children while he heads into the heart of Vietnam to rescue his son. Here, we truly see Alexander as a father for the first time: He is desperate to find his firstborn and desperate to survive the attempt and return to his family.
Parts of The Summer Garden feel tedious and slow moving because they deal with everyday challenges while we are used to seeing these characters face the extraordinary. But these are necessary challenges for Tatiana and Alexander to face in order to be believable in readers minds. At times I felt that Simons focused far too much on their characters sex lives but I realized that Tatiana and Alexander are able to reconnect and express feeling for one another physically long before they are able to do so verbally. These bedroom scenes that initially feel gratuitous are actually a way of depicting a growing relationship and the struggle to express the deepest reaches of love that the characters feel. While the other novels dealt with issues of life and death, this novel deals with life- what Tatiana and Alexander have fought for, for so long.
Interspersed with the action of the novel we see flashbacks of a time before the war, before Alexander, when a young Tatiana first is confronted with evil and the struggle to survive. This subplot also further develops Tatiana's relationship with Dasha and why it so important to her in The Bronze Horseman.
As a trilogy we really come through these books with a sense of knowing these characters through and through- we see the events of Leningrad and their meeting through the eyes of Alexander as well as Tatiana, scenes from their childhoods and their experiences separately, as well as what they share together and why. This allows us to feel that we know them, and we care for them far more deeply- it allows us to share in their fears and struggles and find joy in their day to day lives together.
I've now read everything Paullina Simons has written to date, and I can't wait for her next book. Now that I know "what happens next" I might reread this trilogy at a slower pace at some point so that I can savor it more.