Ah, the summer novel, the literary vice that must hold serious publishers to their other virtues the rest of the year. Usually intensely ambitious, sweepingly sentimental, historically panoramic, or just down and dirty, summer novels provide an intellectual escapism designed to mirror the gleeful surrender of responsibility that a oil-slicked flop on the sands requires.
Joanne Harris's Blackberry Wine is a classic of a beach book—which is to say, you have been warned. A wishfully poetic pastiche of magical realism and travelogue-by-surrogate, it may lure the more extreme romantics into sun-drugged suspense.
Jay Mackintosh is the classic great-soul-in-a-prison-of-his-own-making, a poor little rich Brit who as a teenager is sent off to his grandparents in coal-mining country while his parents parade about with their next mates. There he is befriended by an old man who makes potions and talismans, plants by lunar cycle, guards his perimeters with colored ribbons, grows peculiar-looking apples, makes homemade wine, enjoys astral travel, and speaks in erratic dialect. Jay also becomes the pal of a mysterious gypsy girl named Gilly, has a long feud with a gang of toughs who finally catch him, and feels abandoned when Joe vanishes even though he turns the colorful old codger into a best-selling novel. Twenty years later he's still whining about the unfairness of it all, living with a smart and pretty woman who should know better, churning out sci-fi novels under an alias, and drinking when he's supposed to be writing. You get a fair amount of this florid history right up front, since Harris likes to jump back and forth between the mid-1970s and the present every three or four pages, which is good for reminding you to turn over if you're tanning but has a rather annoying predictability about it. In Harris's hands, the gentle tug of the past is like a tsunami.
By page 14, the foreshadowing has hit hurricane force. There was something going on in the cellar, after all. He could almost hear it, like the sounds of a distant party. Beneath his feet the bottles were in gleeful ferment. He could hear them whispering to him, singing, calling, capering. Not only that, but those capering, catcalling bottles barely shut up for the rest of the book.
Before long, Jay has been captivated by a picture of a rundown French country chateau up for sale, and the bottles in the cellar have subsided into eerie, expectant silence. And off we go, to the sort of pastoral village where the postmistress is pansy-faced and plump in a red sweater; the cafe owner knows everything; and the woman next door is beautiful, widowed, mysterious, and controversial. Jay has all the material for a brilliant new novel, which has the agents in a bidding frenzy, but the garden and the roses are calling him. . . . Will he find his soul? Will he embrace his ghosts? Will the TV crew uncover the widow's secret?
French-English writer Joanne Harris won fans in the United States when her debut novel, Chocolat, was published here last year. As the action in her new novel unfolds, you have to hope she is actually doing this for fun. For instance, consider that the main character is a novelist who had his one serious literary success as a very young man and has been seeking to rediscover his inspiration ever since, but then winds up warming his heart through the pleasures of gardening (with long-lost heirloom seeds that appear as if by you-know-what). Is the name Jay Mackintosh a comment on Jay McInerney? Or just an organic seed joke? Did I remember to tell you his eyes are Pinot Noir indigo ? Then there's Gilly, presumably short for Gillyflower, and Rosa, who is her double; the florist named Narcisse, the red-haired man named Roux even Jackapple Joe's real name is Cox, another apple variety. It could go either way. Me, I need a drink.
As it happens, I have a bottle of real blackberry wine in my refrigerator, the gift of a West Virginian named Squirrel whose homespun practicalities are probably more amazing than Jackapple Joe's (and who wields a mean butcher knife.) His 1998 blackberry Bang is a true potion, thick with the flavors not just of berries so ripe they're almost turned but also burnt caramel, damson, dark honey, and the oddest aromatic searing of cork and rosemary. While you're not likely to partake of Squirrel's special, you can easily get, for only $18 or $20, a real magic carpet ride: Lindeman's 1997 Padthaway Shiraz, which opens with a burst of rich blackberry and black cherry flavors, broadens into plum, deepens into wild mushroom and chocolate and tobacco, and tops off with a soft, lightly peppery finish and a hint of walnut. (And don't worry if your store has already moved into the 1998; it may even be better.)
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.