The Lost Vintage

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Author: Ann Mah
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Jun. 2018 (read Apr. 2021)

The Lost Vintage has been on my TBR for years and I finally read it! It first came on my radar when I read an interview with the author that talked about the historical violence that has been perpetuated against women during war time. There is a plethora of literature out there about WWII (honestly I think there’s too much – I’d really like to see more about non-western countries and other time periods), but a lot of what is published about WWII focuses either on the holocaust or interesting historical stories (ie, a nurse during the blitz, a secret resistance worker, a pilot behind enemy lines, etc). The Lost Vintage focuses on German-occupied France, a topic that I’ve definitely read more than one book about, but I was immediately intrigued to explore the hidden (and not so hidden) violence against women.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely other books out there on this topic. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale is the first that comes to mind, but even books like Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants series explore how in Germany’s defeat, an overwhelming number of women were raped by Russian soldiers as their spoils of war. But what I have been particularly interested in, and the main reason I wanted to read this book, is how ‘collaborators’ were treated in the liberation. I’m sorry to say, that before a few years ago, it wasn’t something I had given that much thought to. 

A couple of years ago I read Mark Sullivan’s book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky. I strongly disliked the writing in the book, but it was based on a true story and as much as I disliked a lot of the book, there’s one scene at the end of the book that I constantly think of. This book took place in Milan and at the end of the war, the people of Italy basically mobbed the entire country, hanging Mussolini in the street and shaming, abusing, and killing tons of women that were seen as collaborators. Though Europe is filled with people who ‘collaborated’ during the war, the benefit of time is that it has allowed us to examine those whose collaboration was inexcusable (people who sold out their neighbours for personal gain) and those whose collaboration was more a victim of circumstance (accepting food to feed your family in exchange for personal favours to a German official). “Horizontal Collaboration” was strongly condemned after the war, despite the fact that many women were in fact victims of German occupation and power.

What’s so enraging about this is the fact that after the war, European citizens (of several countries) essentially enacted mob and vigilante justice on both real and perceived collaborators. I definitely believe in war tribunals and prosecuting those who are responsible for war crimes – but much of this justice was enacted without trial or evidence. In a mob-like fever, people we’re dragged from their homes and citizen justice was performed in the streets. What’s so enraging about it now, and what Ann Mah touches on briefly in her book, is that many of the people directing this justice were actually male collaborators themselves (point the finger first lest it be pointed at you instead), and that most of the ‘justice’ was perpetrated against women, particularly women who were perceived to have slept with the enemy. It ignores the fact that many women were taken advantage of and raped, and in the case of this book, required absolutely no evidence. 

So this is obviously a topic I’m pretty passionate about, but what about this book? This is basically just an extended background rant about what inspired me to pick up The Lost Vintage. The Lost Vintage does grapple with questions of collaboration, and interestly, heritage. Everyone wants to believe that if they had lived through WWII they would have been on the side of the resistance. That they would have been empathetic to the plight of Jews and fought against tyranny. But war and poverty make us do desperate things and when we discover that our family history might be more than a little embarrassing, what do we do about that? 

So The Lost Vintage raised a lot of interesting topics and questions for me, but I credit it to my own interest rather than what the author actually delivered because unfortunately, this book left a lot to be desired. It had a lot of potential, but there were two core storylines taking place and the one the author devotes most of her time to is the wine storyline.

The Lost Vintage is a about a wine expert, Kate, who is trying to pass the ultimate exam in the world of sommeliers – the Master of Wine certificate. In order to prepare for her final exam, she travels to her mother’s childhood home in Burgundy, a wine estate that has been passed down through her family for generations. While in Burgundy, she discovers a number of relics in the family cellar, including a cache of expensive wines from the war. She begins to search both for information on her family heritage, as well as the missing bottles of a very expensive, lost vintage.

This was the author’s debut novel and while it shows a lot of promise, it had a lot of the trappings of a debut novel. The writing is not engaging and the format and pacing of the book just didn’t work for me. It has a very slow start and I was more than halfway through the book before I finally got into it. The author dedicates a lot of time to Kate and her wine exam. It’s clear the author knows a lot about wine and this might be interesting to those ensconced in the wine world, but for me (and my entire book club), we wanted to know more about Kate’s family history and the diaries of her great-aunt Helene. 

Mah does deliver on the plot points relating to female collaboration, and I did enjoy the thought exercise of reflecting on what it means to discover collaborators in your family tree, but I don’t think Mah did the topic justice. First of all, I thought that Kate’s reaction to discovering a collaborator in her history was an over-reaction. I feel like there must be a lot of people in France with similar histories and given the benefit of time, we now understand that the accusation of ‘collaborator’ from mob justice really didn’t mean a whole lot. I was able to forgive Heather’s reaction because she was Jewish, but overall I thought the entire family over-reacted and didn’t show a whole lot of maturity by just refusing to speak of Helene for 80 years.

Besides that, the book had a lot of flaws. I feel like the author had the core idea for her book and didn’t know what to do beyond that. She tried some things to increase the suspense, but none of it worked with the rest of the narrative. Characters like Walker and Louise were absolutely pointless and I found the trajectory of the love story jarring and thought the characters had no chemistry. There was so much potential that was just wasted. I wanted to see a more equal split between Kate and Helene’s story (the focus is disproportionately on Kate) and I wanted to see a better exploration of what I thought were going to be the key themes. I felt the author knew everything there was to know about wine, but was just lazy in the rest of the writing. 

But I still gave this book 3 stars so what gives? I do think this was a good story – it was just a good story, poorly told. Similar to Mark Sullivan’s, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, I still wanted to read the story, I just wanted to experience it from a more experienced author. 

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