Generally speaking, at its most basic level, a novel is about a person (or persons) who goes through some kind of experience that changes him or her. There’s plenty of room for variation in this formula, of course; probably as many variations as there are novels. Sometimes, though, a novel doesn’t really fit into this formula at all. Does this make it bad? Not a novel? Not necessarily.
Peter Mayle’s A Good Year is ostensibly the story of Max Skinner, a young Englishman who, on a day when his lucks seems to have run out entirely, learns that he has inherited his uncle’s chateau and vineyard in Provence. While he learns to adjust to French country life, he also has to contend with a couple of attractive young ladies, one of whom is the slightly mysterious notaire who is handling his late uncle’s affairs, the unexpected arrival of his uncle’s previously unknown illegitimate daughter from California, and the state of his vines and the wine that they produce.
What this novel actually is, though, is a love letter to Provence. There are characters, and they’re mainly a pleasant lot, but they’re really not the focal point. What Mayle wants to tell you about is France: the people, the food, and most importantly, the wine. And all of those things? Marvelous. Ok, the people have their quirks and are at times quite comical, but the food and the wine are absolutely nothing to sneer at. I have no idea what a pastis is (not really; it’s a anise-flavored liquor, watered down and sort of a before-dinner beverage), but I’ve been craving one for two days now, ever since I finished the book. Never mind all the talk of wine. This book will make you want to drop everything and book a ticket for France, where you will not even pretend to be concerned about your figure (nobody in the book seems to be, anyway) and will gorge yourself senseless, which is apparently de rigeur.
Seriously, though, this book is nothing overly special. It’s a charming story with charming, if rather bland characters, and a lot of descriptive passages about food. It might be poking the smallest amount of fun at the wine business, but it’s hard to say. There’s a wee bit of a mystery, although if you’ve seen the film adaptation*, I will say that the basics are the same, but the execution is actually surprisingly different, and fairly enjoyable. It’s a really quick, easy read, proper brain candy in that there’s no real message here (aside from Come to Provence!). The novel somehow manages to balance fictive coincidence with a reasonable amount of realism, however, which is no small feat. Mostly, it just comes across as comfortable and sort of homey, much in the way I imagine we are supposed to perceive the French countryside. Looking for something light to read that will send you to your liquor store immediately after? This is the book for you.
*Please note that I am a huge Russell Crowe fan and that I own this movie. It is a “I’m home sick in bed” favorite. Feel free to hate on it if you want, but understand that, differences aside**, I won’t agree with you.
**Interestingly enough, according to IMDb, Mayle and Ridley Scott are buddies (they both live in Provence), and the story was originally Scott’s idea. Mayle wrote his version of the story, which diverged quite a bit from Scott’s, and so the film version is how Scott envisioned it in the first place. Just a bit of movie trivia for you.