This is part of my Summer Reads 2018 series where I’ll be reviewing a series of “not just cookbooks”.
Today I’m very excited to share Ann Mah‘s latest novel – The Lost Vintage (releases tomorrow, June 19th 2018), a novel that will appeal to Francophiles, wine buffs and lovers of historical fiction alike. Ann is currently based in Washington, D.C. and Paris and is a regular contributor to New York Times Travel. She’s written for Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue.com, Food52, The Kitchn, BonAppétit.com and her work has appeared in Best American Travel Writing 2017, The New York Times: Footsteps and other publications. She’s currently working on Instantly French, a cookbook for the Instant Pot (and other electric pressure cookers).
I’m a big fan of Ann’s work, have been even since before I met her in person for the first time in the summer of 2012 in Paris, and was thrilled when Mastering the Art of French Eating was released in 2013 (the book I recommend to anyone interested in food and France as THE guide book they must read before they travel there!). The Lost Vintage is a change of pace from food-focussed writing as Ann moves into the world of wine and history, specifically France during World War II.
From the publisher:
To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, the travels to Burgundy to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife, Heather, who now oversee the day-to-day management of the grapes. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a talented young winemaker and her first love.
At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousin clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history – a search that takes her back to the dark days of World War II and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great-half aunt who was a teenager during the Nazi occupation.
As she learns more about her family, the line between resistance and collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?
For me, this book was always going to be appealing – I love reading about France, but France as the setting for an historical mystery? Couldn’t be more perfect for a Summer Read. This is a true “page turner”- I stayed up WAY too late to read this a couple of nights and even missed my stop on the subway one morning, I was so engrossed in the story!
When you first start reading, it feels like it might be “just another” story romanticising France – girl needs to study for Big Wine Exam, girl travels to France to spend some time on her family’s vineyard (!), girl meets long lost first love, maybe falls in love again, learns enough to pass Big Wine Exam, moves back to France with Big Wine Certification and lives happily ever after with long lost first love. This actually sounds like a book I’d read – especially in the summer – a “page turner” because it’s an easy read and Ann could probably have chosen this route, had she pleased. But it’s so much more that this!
Instead, Ann’s chosen to work with dual storylines – one present-day featuring Kate and her quest to pass her Master of Wine (and to avoid Jean-Luc as she spends time in Burgundy) and the other set in World War II during the occupation, featuring Kate’s long lost relatives and their stories from that time. Sometimes I struggle with books that move back and forward in time but Ann manages this very gracefully as the parts of the book set in World War II are told in journal form and the storyline moves seamlessly between past and present with no need to flip back to remind yourself what was going on a few pages ago in the other storyline.
Interestingly (for me) the World War II plot was the one I found myself most invested in. Though I lived with someone who studied for – and passed – a high-level wine exam, the WSET Level 3 and I could most definitely identify with Kate’s stress over her exam, the story of Kate’s family living through the occupation both gripped and horrified me at the same time. I appreciate how Ann doesn’t gloss over any details about the atrocities of the time; one might argue that details of the horrors suffered by the French during the Nazi occupation are unnecessary to include. But the grittiness of those details make this story “unputdownable”.
Ann is an incredibly talented writer who manages to find balance and masterfully weave a light-hearted romance storyline with a dark, historical plot that will have you telling yourself “just one more chapter” until you find you’ve finished the book in pretty much one sitting. This will make you want to travel to Burgundy, drink wine and read more about daily life in France during World War II. A superb read.
Please note: This post contains product links from Amazon and The Book Depository which are affiliate links, meaning if you click over and purchase something, I will receive a very small percentage of the purchase price (at no extra cost to you). Thank you in advance!
Disclosure: I received a copy of The Lost Vintage from the publisher. I was not required to review this book, nor am I receiving compensation for doing do. All opinions my own. (FULL disclosure: Ann is a good friend but this is an awesome book and I only review things I love!)
MY BOOK! In the French kitchen with kids releases July 31, 2018! Click here for pre-order details!