Bordeaux: A Novel in Four Vintages
By Paul Torday
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 308 pages, $24
Let me begin with a caveat: I greatly enjoyed Paul Torday’s first novel, published two years ago, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It mixed charm, expertise and a fine sense of place, and it dealt with its cast of obsessives with wise good humor in a smooth, agreeable writing style. I therefore looked forward to Mr. Torday’s second novel, Bordeaux—but I have to report that had I not undertaken to review it, and to do so in good faith, I doubt I would have finished the book.
And yet this new novel comes festooned with encomiums from the British press, including a comparison with Evelyn Waugh, praise that suggests to me that perhaps my sensibility, formed and honed in an earlier age, is too out of date to “get” a book like this. If it can be likened to Waugh, it would be to the Waugh of one book only, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. If that’s the Waugh of your preference, Gentle Reader, you may find a certain pleasure in Bordeaux.
The narrative arc of Mr. Torday’s novel is the descent into alienation and alcoholism, told backward in time, in four stages, of one Francis Wilberforce (mainly known only as “Wilberforce,” doubtless to avoid confusion with another principal character named Francis), a computer geek who exchanges his substance (proceeds from the sale of a proprietary software company) for a mess of winespeak pottage (“flavors of truffles, spices and sweet fruit”) and the company of a bunch of English country swells whose sort he clearly isn’t.
When we first encounter him, Wilberforce is ordering a $4,500 bottle of Ch. Pétrus ’82 in a London restaurant, and we soon learn that he’s in fact in an alcoholic death spiral, penniless in a swank flat in Mayfair, guzzling—at the rate of five bottles a day—the remnants of a putative 100,000-bottle stash of fine claret (the purchase of which constituted the first, fine, rapturous bound into the abyss).
Wilberforce started out as a commonplace chap who built a gift for numbers and programming into a nice, profitable company in Durham, in the north of England. He worked early and late, mainly eating Indian food washed down with Diet Coke, and didn’t have much of what people call “a life.” In short, he was a perfect mark for a bunch of bad stuff thrown in his path by a collection of upper-crust country types who appear to have wandered in from some pallid imitation of a Nancy Mitford novel—and the perfect mark, too, for an author more than half in love with the artistic possibilities of irony. (The novel’s title in the U.K. was The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.)
Basically, we’re looking at a series of seductions gone bad, in one instance tragically so, involving a susceptible but not very interesting hick anxious to hang out with the quality.
But it’s all so heavy-handed and perfunctory. Wilberforce may be lonely and non-U, but he’s not an idiot, and I personally found it impossible to believe in the “sting,” so to speak, that’s the cornerstone of the rickety, uninvolving edifice of his ultimate degradation. The novel’s title implies a rich layering of wine lore, but what we get instead reads like an online list of chateau names. And not one central character is really sympathetic, or, for that matter, fully developed.
The truth is, it’s all very slapdash. Cannily phrased, but slapdash nonetheless. To do proper literary justice to what the author had in mind would require a book twice as long—or half the length.
Michael M. Thomas’ next novel, Love & Money, will be published by Melville House in 2009. He can be reached at email@example.com.