I am so excited for my review of this book. I actually finished this book in Starbucks and had to try very hard to not tear up. As you know, I’ve been trying to read as much as possible this summer, and I’m really proud of myself for actually accomplishing that goal. It’s been so refreshing to reach for a novel rather than a TV show (though I still watch The Bold Type each week because it’s amazing). Anyway, I’ve read seven books (!!) this summer so far. Of the seven, I think The Lost Vintage may be my favorite. This book was a perfect blend of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, coziness, intrigue, and romance. Honestly, it’s the total package. Also, wine snob that I am, I was so happy with the wine component of this book. I now kind of want to read up on the Master of Wine test… *begins thinking about taking the exam someday*
I’m one of those people who likes to research a book before I buy. I usually read reviews, look at what press attention the book receives, stalk the Instagram hashtag to see first impressions, etc. This book, however, I saw on Instagram and decided to just go for because the person who posted it had similar feelings about The Female Persuasion as me and I decided that was enough for me to plunge into The Lost Vintage. Also, there is the fact that upon my third re-watching of Under the Tuscan Sun and my fourth re-watching of Eat, Pray, Love, I was desperate for a book that would transport me to a wine-filled, cozy corner of the world and Burgundy, France seemed like just the place. I’m mildly concerned this review is going to be too long, so bear with me, and pour yourself a glance of wine if you want!
This book follows Kate, a young woman who lives in San Francisco, but her family has owned a vineyard in France for generations. Swearing to never return to France after a disastrous break-up, Kate is now living her life in San Francisco where she is studying for the Master of Wine exam, an intense exam where you have to identify all aspects of wine by blind taste and answer a series of essay questions on wine theory. The test is a “three strikes you’re out” kind of test, and she’s already failed twice. So, in an attempt to pass, her mentor recommends she go spend time on her family’s vineyard to learn more about French wine, the only wine she consistently messes up on the exam. So, she heads to Burgundy, France to assist her family in the year’s harvest. Running alongside her narrative is the narrative of her relative during the German ccupation of France in WWII. Only the reader is privy to this story, though it is interwoven in Kate’s narrative as well.
Two narratives, two heroines, can be hard to accomplish as a writer. When I read books that are written in this manner, I often greatly prefer one story over the other. This one, however, kept me wanting more from each story. The reason I think this book works so well is that we watch Kate and her family attempt to piece together her relative’s life and fate through the history left behind, despite holes and uncertainties. But as the reader, we know the truth, so when Kate missteps or misunderstands we feel anguish and sadness for her relative’s legacy is remembered incorrectly. The other reason I enjoyed the WWII aspect is that I was largely unfamiliar with the Occupation, the separations that occurred within families as some members resisted German control and others believed succumbing to the Germans was the only means of survival. I also have never studied what the French did to Nazi sympathizers or collaborators. While I think the actions of the people who supported Nazis were despicable, it was hard to swallow what happened after the war, especially knowing women were often bearing the brunt of French anger while the men who collaborated went largely unpunished. In this regard, this novel gave me so much to think about and absorb and made me want to learn more about the Occupation, post-liberation France, and the familial divides that occurred.
I adored both heroines of this story. Kate was spunky, stubborn, but also funny, warm, self-aware. Helene was strong, unwavering, and so very intelligent. I loved that this book explores what happens when we learn things about our ancestors we don’t like, how we can take accountability, how we can be better than those who came before us. While I did think one part of the resolution-portion of the novel was wrapped up a little too quickly and perhaps not tenderly enough, I still adored this novel. I found myself thinking about it all day, trying to figure out how much reading I could squeeze into the day. To be honest, this was the first book where I really liked all the characters (well, all the characters I was supposed to like). I read this book so quickly because I couldn’t put it down, I wanted to figure out the mystery, I wanted Kate to know the truth about her relative, and I wanted to know if she’d pass the exam. I was thoroughly engrossed in every aspect of this story and did not want it to end.
I will say, without giving any spoilers hopefully, that I felt like Kate’s inability to master French wine, specifically white burgundy, was intertwined heavily with an emotional block. She had repressed so many emotions she had for the people who produced the wine that in doing so she became unable to learn the wine. This mirrored, in my mind, some actions by people in the WWII narrative and how, upon refusing to acknowledge certain people or realities, they became unable to fight. I’m not sure how to articulate this idea without spoilers, so I will just say read the book!
I’m surprised this book hasn’t received more critical attention. The only press attention I could find was pretty meager in comparison to books I read earlier this summer. Perhaps because Ann Mah is a newer author The New York Times, The New Yorker and other publications haven’t reviewed her yet. But they certainly should as this novel is so important and places Mah among some of the strongest voices in contemporary fiction. This novel was touted as Sweetbitter meets The Nightingale and though I haven’t read The Nightingale, I would say that the description is accurate. The Nightingale focuses on WWII France (beautifully from what I hear), and the amount of wine and wine culture in this book clearly aligns with Sweetbitter, though our protagonist is more akin to Stephanie Danler (author of Sweetbitter) than her protagonist, Tess, because Kate is very well-versed in wine unlike Tess, who is only beginning an appreciation for good wine. So, if you pick up one book from all the books I’ve read this summer, make it this one. I have a serious book hangover and will probably need a day or two before I start Euphoria, the next book on my July TBR.
Important takeaways as a reader: I should reach for more historical fiction. When done well, historical fiction can be a mesmerizing, humbling, deeply emotional experience.
I am so excited for Ann Mah’s future books and I sincerely hope this book begins capturing the attention of more readers. Again, if you need a new read, make it this one! I never say this, but I may re-read this book in the future. I went through it so quickly, I hope to revisit the story again. For now, next up is Euphoria by Lily King… I won’t lie, this one is a bit outside my comfort zone and I debated swapping it out for Emily Giffin’s new novel, but alas… I will read it! It’s going to be my last book while in DC and then I have some Book of the Month books waiting for me in California.