Upon reading the premise of this novel, I was immediately drawn in: it’s like someone rooted around in my brain and picked out the exact kind of story I wanted to write. But the actual writing and way things played out, I can’t say that I enjoyed. All the ingredients are there to make a compelling read, but ultimately didn’t come together quite so easily. To be fair, the timeline of the book spans quite a number of decades, but perhaps addressing all that time in such a manner was per say necessary.
The Vintner’s Luck follows the life of a man named Sobran Jodeau, a son of a wine maker in France during the 1800s. We begin the story when he is just a teenager, drunk and filled with sorrow about unrequited love. One night, Sobran meets and angel named Xas, who gives Sobran some advice on his love life, and says that he will return in a year to see how things go for Sobran. From here, the two make a promise to continue to meet on the same night every year, and become quick confidants and friends. The story progresses across the years of the two and their loving relationship with one another, also tying in with Sobran’s life as a wine maker, with his family and wife Celeste, and with a family friend and mistress Aurora, until Sobran’s ultimate death at an elderly age.
I find that I am sometimes drawn to stories with motifs of angels and celestial beings: I am fascinated by them, but also by how authors will weave different beliefs and systems of logic to them in order to allow them to exist within the story they are telling. In this case, there are discussions of heaven and hell, as well as issues of the soul and morality presented, etc, though some of the discussions seem a little shoehorned in out of nowhere and become a little awkward given the rest of the discussion being had at the time. I do, however, think that something that works very well with Sobran and Xas and their yearly meetings, is that for the most part (and especially in the earlier portions of Sobran’s life) they reflect the importance and intimacy that can be had with friends who you don’t see very often, but are also so close when you do. It reminded me of a school friend of mine who I usually meet for hours at a time, but only once a year or so, and it never feels odd or like we aren’t friends; we just pick up exactly where we left off and get each other up to speed on our lives before diving into all kinds of conversations. I think that when Elizabeth Knox has portions like this in her novel, it works well, though perhaps skims through a little too quickly.
This brings me to one of the biggest complaints that I have with the novel, which is the pacing. The parts that work well skim by too quickly, and the parts that don’t slog on for what seems like ages. There is so much time to get through that both the beginning and end portions of the novel seem like they are slipping by, and in particular this seemed off to me in the early portions of the novel where Sobran is establishing his relationship with Xas, as well as his life as a vintner through the help and advice of his angelic friend: this would be what I consider the most important aspect of the novel, but this as well as some serious character conflict whizzes past without much regard for how it will affect the rest of the novel: I was barely one-third of the way through the book and realized that already so much of Sobran’s life had gone by, I couldn’t understand how the rest of the story would be filled. But then there is a plodding middle section later in Sobran’s life, which to be fair includes some big moments, but also focuses much more intimately on pieces that previously didn’t seem to be much matter, only to then continue on and not matter much in the end anyways. There is such a scope of time to cross, but it feels like it wasn’t handled that well. Perhaps I have been spoiled as the last book I completed was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which managed to cover hundreds of years of history in just 300 pages but never felt like the pacing was wrong or like the story was incomplete.
In a way, there is a strange sense in The Vintner’s Luck of presenting new information and new plotlines that would be very interesting to explore, only to shuffle them off to the sidelines and have them ultimately not really mean anything. In particular, Sobran’s relationship with his family, brother, wife, and the local murders of the town are introduced, only to be neatly but inconsequentially explained away in order to tie up loose ends. There are so many children and grandchildren in the story that are just briefly mentioned that they feel like no more than a name, and I had no sense of so when things happened around them I hardly knew who they were or why I should care beyond knowing that Sobran would be upset (But would he really? We barely see him interact with these people at all).
And more than anyone else, I felt like such a disservice was being done with Sobran’s wife, Celeste: she exist to be a catalyst for the story to begin and to really solidify the relationship between Xas and Sobran, but then becomes little more than a baby machine, who is known as being “crazy” in the town but it is never explained why or what she does to make it so, and there is also a plotline of Celeste’s relationship with Sobran’s brother but this is really glossed over as well, only with a tiny note at the end to make sure there is an explanation, though at that point it seemed like just an extra thought added to the end which didn’t per say need to be there.
Ultimately all the relationships on which the novel hinges don’t appear to be that developed or presented in a way that made me care at all; I didn’t understand the connection between a lot of the characters. Even the most developed of Xas and Sobran experienced such shifts of coming together and leaving and love and anger and flip-flopping about that I couldn’t fully grasp why these changes occurred in such a manner as they did (well, I sometimes did, but a lot of the time it felt so contrived). There is such an attempt to show the real life and work put into making the wineries but ultimately the lives and relationships of these people didn’t feel real at all.
At the end of the day, The Vintner’s Luck has an interesting premise with which a lot could be done, and perhaps others may find it better than I did. But being that it’s not truly that long of a book, it seemed to drag and not ever fully connect with me. I’ve seen other reviews claiming it to be deeply emotional, but at no point did I feel this myself.