This is a family saga with everything I love – traditions, a battle of wills and over wills, true love, intense hatred, adultery, cowardice, cruelty, and even murder. Above all, there is the wine. Oh, and the whine, plenty of whine. It is the story of a family that keeps their traditions in tact through generations, no matter the cost. Money short? Let’s have a feast. Oh, and bring out the priceless wine, lots of it. And while we drink it, let’s complain about how hard our lives are; especially the hard work of picking out the linens, and planning the elaborate multi-course meals that someone else cooks for us.
Don’t get me wrong — many of the men work very hard. The women, for the most part, (if they work outside the castle) sleep their way to the top. Despite the fact that Françoise Bourdin is a woman writer (at least according to her bio), she does not do any favors to women in this book. Even Fernande, the hardest working woman, (cook, housekeeper, surrogate mother to four grown men) has to deal with her share of misogyny. When she was young, and their father was worried she would leave his house, he married her off to the cellar master to make her stay. The brothers believe he did their homely cook a favor, offering her a marriage she would not otherwise have found for herself.
Though the author sometimes resorts to caricature, there were many characters in this large and varied lot that I admired and enjoyed. There were some despicable ones I liked as well. As for Jules, the impossibly perfect main character, I can’t wait to see who plays him in the movie. (Oh yeah, this will be a movie – and it will be better than the book). The problem was that the book just seemed so long, and it wasn’t really all that many pages. There were times I found myself talking back to the author, saying, yes, I know why he’s doing that, you don’t have to tell me. In the midst of the action, she felt the need to explain the reason behind it in excruciating detail.
Apparently Françoise Bourdin is very popular in France. I think this is one of her first novels to appear in English (another one came out shortly after this). What I would have liked, I think, was a better translator. I read it in another review, and I have to agree, there were some awkward “American” expressions in here. For instance, I’m pretty sure that nobody in an old French dynasty would use the word “kiddo”. At times like this I almost felt like they were pandering to their American audience, as if we couldn’t understand a term of endearment more complicated than slang. I also found the names of the boys kind of jarringly unrelated – one brother is Louis-Marie (never shortened), while another is Bob. This seemed odd in a family that thrived on formalities.
Overall, there was just way too much description for me in this book. It was distracting, (and often boring) reading elaborate menus describing course after course of their daily multi-course meals. In the end, I found myself skimming through scenes, searching for something to happen. Halfway through the book I could predict the obvious ending, so trust me when I say it took an awful lot of patience to finally get there.