|Michaela August: Sweeter Than Wine|
Sweeter Than Wine is such a book, though more forgiving romance readers might relish Michaela August's well-researched effort. Set in California's wine country between World War I and Prohibition, it focuses on Alice Roye's Montclair winery. Alice knows nothing about wine-making except what her inept husband Bill mentioned before leaving to meet a tragic end in the war. To save Montclair, Alice's scheming granny-in-law persuades her to marry another grandson, this one a master vintner.
Alice and her new husband Siegfried -- who fought with the Germans -- are endearing characters. During their first quarrel, over the deplorable state of the winery, Siegfried shows restraint and empathy with the untrained Alice, despite his exasperation. She, though frustrated, listens and tries to learn. Their personalities provide the foundation for a strong relationship, based on patience, flexibility, and openness. Siegfried is single-minded in a realistically masculine way, and Alice matches this with a hint of perfectionism. "I hate making mistakes!" she says at one point, and her actions bear this out.
But Alice does make mistakes, and so does August. As the mutual attraction develops, instead of thinking something like "maybe Siegfried cares for me, like I care for him," Alice decides that he wants to take the winery from her. This is where Sweeter Than Wine lost me, as much as I wanted to like the book.
Jumping to conclusions, failing to ask obvious questions, and withholding critical information are what loving couples do not do. Miscommunication often pops up in romance novels as a device to create conflict. The better authors avoid this trap, knowing how often it backfires. Unfortunately Sweeter Than Wine relies on this device.
This trick upsets me with Sweeter Than Wine because Alice and Siegfried are otherwise compatible. Yes, Siegfried wants to eventually own a winery, so the ulterior motive Alice assigns him has some foundation. But she never gives him a chance. She remains annoyingly closed to the possibility that Siegfried truly could be the kind, honorable person she loves.
Yet Siegfried busts his tail to fix the winery and trains Alice in its operation. Is this the kind of guy who's going to seduce a woman in order to steal her business? Hardly. Other criticisms, regarding minor lapses in logic and peripheral characters, who could use more nuances, are quibbles compared to this distraction.
Nevertheless, Sweeter Than Wine realizes much of its potential. I expect August's future books to be even better. And if you are the type of romance fan who can forgive the occasional contrivance, you might want to curl up with Sweeter Than Wine some Saturday afternoon.
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