Georgia is a successful lawyer, happily living in LA, about to marry the man of her dreams and start a new life with him in London — when she sees him walking down the street with a gorgeous woman and a five-year-old girl with his eyes who calls him “Daddy”. Problem? The wedding is in one week. Another problem: Ben has never mentioned a daughter, but the woman is his ex-girlfriend — who just happens to be a world-famous movie star. Georgia flees, straight back to the comfort of family and home, but when she arrives, she doesn’t find exactly the peace and calm she’s looking for.
Instead, her family’s Sonoma vineyard is in an uproar. Her parents, who have an ultra-cute meet-cute story, have drifted apart, to the point where her mother is conducting a mostly-platonic affair with an old lover. What’s worse, her father has decided to sell his vineyard, his lifelong passion, to a huge wine company, one of the “evil” mass-market winemakers that he’s always hated. On top of that, Georgia’s twin brothers are feuding on a level that may change lives, and Georgia herself doesn’t know what she wants — for her future marriage or for her career. And then there’s Jacob, the CEO of the huge wine company, who happens to be attractive, single, and not as evil as Georgia would like to believe him to be.
Do you smell a love triangle coming on? Because I sure did, the second Jacob appeared on the scene.
But in a sense, the love triangle is the least important love story going on here. In Eight Hundred Grapes, the most compelling love story is the story of Georgia’s family’s love for the land. In some of the most moving sections of the book, we learn about her father Dan’s devotion to his soil, his grapes, his winemaking process, his absolute belief in what he’s doing, and what it means to him, his family, and his community. Although Georgia outwardly has done everything she can to distance herself from the vineyards, her actions show how deeply rooted she is in the family acres and the business.
Author Laura Dave lovingly describes the natural beauty of Sonoma , the grace of nature, and a return to a respectful and mutually beneficial relationship to the land. Through the descriptions of Dan’s approach to viticulture, she shows that new possibilities exist, incorporating old traditions but infused with science and organic growth and cultivation.
The characters all have something at stake, and much thought is given to the concepts of what each truly values, what’s been given up in the past, and what each wants to get back or hold onto. There are plenty of missed chances and second chances, and the characters all go through various forms of eye-openings, learning to see each other not just as they always have, but taking a fresh look and understanding what each wants and needs.
It all felt like the same thing: the loss of the vineyard, the coming apart of our family. Finn and Bobby and Margaret. My parents. Ben and Maddie. Michelle. It all felt tied up, like the same thread was running through them. Where there had been trust — to keep each other safe, to make each other feel loved — there was none. Maybe it was tied up. Synchronized to come apart the moment my father turned his back on the vineyard and we were all too busy to stop him.
Back to the love triangle for a minute — at about the mid-point of the novel, I thought that I’d called it wrong and that there wouldn’t really be a love triangle. Okay, so I was right after all, but fortunately, the triangle isn’t the driving factor in this story. What’s more important is that Georgia is forced to take a good hard look at her relationship with her fiancé Ben, not just in light of the revelations about his daughter, but in terms of who she herself is and what she truly wants for her own life.
The writing is insightful, as Georgia analyzes (and perhaps overanalyzes) each family member’s every action and word.
Wasn’t the ultimate form of fidelity who you told your stories to? Ben had stopped telling me his.
Does she believe that her parents’ marriage is truly over? Does her father mean it when he says he’s done with the vineyard? She spends just as much time worrying over her own motivations: Did she choose a law career after seeing how frightening it can be to base everything on something outside of one’s own control? After growing up in a vineyard, she’s well aware of how one or two seasons of bad weather can threaten everything and take away years of hard work. So was she really just looking for a safer path for herself? And what does this say about her relationship with Ben? Does he represent the safe option as well?
Here’s where the more nitpicky part of this review comes along. I didn’t see the value of making Ben’s ex a movie star. It doesn’t add at all to the dynamics of the story, and we didn’t really need the extra element of Georgia feeling insecure or having to deal with the ex’s fame. Georgia’s relationship with Jacob is perhaps the weakest part of the story; again, it just didn’t feel terribly necessary to have a new love interest thrown into the mix of Georgia dealing with her family and her plans for her future.
These small issues aside, I really liked the storytelling in Eight Hundred Grapes, particularly seeing the world through Georgia’s eyes. Her perspective is fresh and funny, even when dealing with serious, momentous decisions. The family members are all well-developed, even those who don’t get a lot of major attention. The author does a great job of showing the family history, the years of love and tension, comfort and affection, that make up a whole. Woven into the entire story is the family’s traditions concerning the grapes — the harvest parties, the family dinners, the final harvesting of the most special grapes from the vines. Working with the vines and the soil is deeply embedded in every family moment, and we see that so clearly that it’s easy to understand why Dan’s decision to sell the vineyard is so much more than just a business decision.
I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction with a lot of heart. It’s a quick read, but raises some interesting ideas about family, tradition, and the choices we all face about what to keep and what to give up.
PS – The title? Well, did you ever wonder how many grapes it takes to make a single bottle of wine? Now you know.
Title: Eight Hundred Grapes
Author: Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: June 2, 2015
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley