France has been good to Peter Mayle. With the enormous success 14 years ago of A Year in Provence, about the adventures of Mayle and his wife after they moved from England to restore an 18th century farmhouse in the Luberon, he pioneered the Anglos-in-paradise genre. Every few years now he produces a new book to remind the rest of us worker bees what we're missing by not rolling in honey all day in the south of France, that great sunlit throne room of the middle-class imagination. In Mayle's books, both the novels and the nonfiction accounts of his antic good life among the French, the olives are always plump and succulent, the vin rose tickles the palate just so and the croissants are so delectable that they seem to be buttering themselves.
But maybe it's time for him to move on to another locale, even if it's one where the pastis is not as good. In his new novel, A Good Year (Knopf; 287 pages), there's a distinct feeling of a writer going through the motions. This time Mayle's story involves the boutique wine industry, vineyards that produce just a few hundred cases a year, some of them going for tens of thousands of dollars. (For the record, France's largest exports are heavy machinery and transportation equipment, but what would you rather read about on the beach this summer: steam shovels or a lusty Bordeaux?) Mayle's hero is Max Skinner, a dealmaker in his late 30s toiling at a hateful London investment house. When the reptile who runs the place steals away a big deal just before Max can enjoy the payoff, he quits his job.
Worry not. Faster than you can say zut alors! he gets word that his expatriate bachelor uncle has died, leaving him a house and vineyards in the south of France. Max heads there at once, where he is quickly distracted by a local female attorney with long delectable legs and by the "jaunty bosom" of the hostess at the village bistro. Soon he's thinking to try his hand at making decent wine, or at least something better than the vile purple fluid his uncle was content to produce. But then a cute young American shows up who has her own plausible claim to the property. And wait, what's going on with Roussel, the local who tends Max's vineyards and seems to be doing some mysterious viticulture of his own on the side?
This is a perfectly amiable book but never even slightly a surprising one. Mayle wears smooth the cliches about the French--how their hauteur can be impeccable and their plumbing imponderable, how they drive too fast and have those jaunty bosoms. You imagine Mayle making his checklist of the bits of Provencal color to be sprinkled around the story. Old men playing boules in the village square. Check. Fragrant disks of goat cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. Check. Funny Englishman mangling the French tongue. Check. You have to admire his tireless attention to food and drink, to cassoulets "humming with the promise of cholesterol." After all, this is the man who spent a good part of Encore Provence searching for the perfect corkscrew. But while he's caressing every grape and truffle, his half-baked caper plot runs on autopilot. Uncork his new book? If you must, but only if there's nothing more bubbly at hand. This one is vin ordinaire.
--By Richard Lacayo