The Vintner’s Luck
by Elizabeth Knox
2000 (originally published 1998) • 284 pages • Picador USA
You know how you can spot a period film made in the nineties? Well, I’m going to be no help, because I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it when I see it. Like in Restoration—there’s something about the production design. The quality of the costumes. The Meg Ryan. It might be set in the 1600s, but a single frame can tell you that it was released in 1995. Never mind the fact that it can be carbon-dated by the fullness of Robert Downey Jr.’s lips. (This is why I nearly crawled out of my seat and over the very sweet Spider-Man fan when young!Tony appeared in Captain America: Civil War. His mouth was wrong.)
The same is true of, for some reason, most queer-minded media made in the late nineties and early aughts that I’ve consumed. Velvet Goldmine and The Vintner’s Luck have nothing else in common besides “dudes kiss in them” (oh, and shirtlessness, I guess?), but the quality of the atmosphere is quite similar—heady, languid, rarefied.
The Vintner’s Luck concerns Sobran Jodeau, a vintner (a winemaker, for those of us whose eyes cannot handle those “n”s being close together—I don’t care if I’m French-American, it still looks wrong!) in nineteenth century France. While wandering drunkenly around the countryside, having tried to drink his love troubles away, Sobran is caught by, of all things, an angel. The angel Xas takes a liking to him and they agree to meet once a year over Sobran’s lifetime in that very spot. Over Sobran’s lifetime, including the broken appointments, Xas becomes a confessor, a counselor, a friend, and a lover.
Plot is not exactly a major concern of The Vintner’s Luck. Oh, there is one—Sobran first breaks his angelic appointment while serving Napoleon in Russia, before returning home to tend the vineyards. There’s a murder mystery lurking around the edges that gets dropped and resolved at the end. Eventually Sobran comes into contact with the Baroness Aurora de Valday, a local noble, and they become fast friends. (The narrative occasionally dips into her perspective, especially when she undergoes a mastectomy.)
But, by and large, it’s about Sobran and Xas’ relationship in fits and snatches. (The conceit of the annual visit grows thin towards the end of the book, when all I wanted to read about was the daily trials of their relationship, not the annual outliers.) Anyone hoping to find a novel about a young man swept off his feet by a angel best look elsewhere. Sobran only begins to experience feelings for Xas after the sudden death of one of his young children—Xas’ care and tenderness towards him awakens something in him. There’s elegant tension here, but the consummation is just as enjoyable as the chase. Sobran struggles with Xas’ immortality; Xas struggles with the trials and tribulations of playing mortal; the addition of a third to their couple late in the novel.
Knox does wonders with select, sensuous details and intimate, blunt interactions. There’s a sequel, The Angel’s Cut, set in 1920s Hollywood. Perhaps I’ll investigate it. I’ve been feeling a pull towards queer-minded historical fiction lately—despite my usual rule of not reading the same genre twice in a row, I deeply suspect I’m going to spend this summer reading Mary Renault.
I rented this book from the public library.