Some free Saturdays when I have nothing else to do I like to head downtown and have lunch by myself at Palomino. I go early, before the noon rush, and take a book so I can lean back against the leather banquette and fall into other places as I wait for my food to arrive, reaching one languid hand for some bread and tomato salsa as I lose myself in different worlds. I might bring an Agatha Christie that I haven't read for a while, or something new I have just discovered, or an old favorite like The Enchanted April if the day is grey and damp and I want to dream of warm holidays abroad. Most often I bring something by Peter Mayle, who is like a holiday, a week of sunshine and good food and wine and leisurely days in the countryside, packed into one hour of reading. So today I order a cool mojito (with raspberry syrup instead of rum) along with my lunch and settle in with A Good Year.
Max Skinner finds himself escaping the rat race of a thankless job, leaving behind the career and the company car and the bonus and consigned to the inhumanity of public transport, surrounded by a new generation of wildly pierced and tattooed passengers against whom the older passengers seemed like "relics from a distant, unadorned age." As he is wondering what to do next, with no job and no money and no idea of what to do with his messy flat and his equally messy life, a letter arrives from a French notaire, informing him of his Uncle Henry's death and his subsequent inheritance of his uncle's estate, encompassing the eighteenth-century bastide and twenty hectares of vines. Grape vines.
Over dinner with his best friend Charlie, Max - with the help of a generous loan from his friend - finds himself dreaming of taking over his uncle's vineyard, or at least taking a holiday to see if Le Griffon is the same as he remembered, "if the rooms still had the dry, pungent smell of herbs and lavender; if the sounds of a summer afternoon were the same; if the girls in the village were still as pretty." Before long he is in the village of Saint-Pons, of which he has so many childhood memories, sitting in a café drinking pastis, which tastes better than it ever did in London, because it "was at its best when you could hear the click of boules and the sound of French voices." There is nothing back in London except an empty apartment and an answering machine with the message I've gone to France. Back in six months. Perhaps. (Haven't you always wanted to be able to take off for six months, leave that kind of message on your answering machine, bring your life to a momentary halt while you hare off to some new adventure?).
And adventure is what Max finds, as he falls in love with the beautiful Fanny, who runs the local restaurant, and becomes entangled in a shady wine business that seems to have grown from a certain part of his uncle's vineyard that has been replanted with new and better vines. (Mayle's novels are always about hapless Englishman who come to France and somehow become entangled in something shady; it is his trademark). Meanwhile, a young American who most likely is his cousin arrives, to further complicate things (not to mention bringing up the question of just exactly who is entitled to the estate of Le Griffon).
Against all this mayhem is the glorious Luberon in the brilliant light, artist's light, Mayle calls it, the avenues of plane trees, the endless landscapes of grapevines running in parallel lines as far as the eye can see. I can taste the pastis, imagine the civet of wild boar, "almost black with wine and blood-thickened gravy," the smell of the earth on a hot summer day. It is with a bit of a shock that I finish my mushroom soup, my hot crab-and-artichoke sandwich on toast, and emerge from the Luberon countryside into a bright Spring day...
Mayle, Peter. A Good Year. Vintage Books, 2004. pp 21, 35, 45.