Because Charles Blackstone has so much in common with Peter Hapworth, the narrator of his new novel, Vintage Attraction, it's tempting to imagine it's a roman a clef. Both are literary fellows: Blackstone is the managing editor of the online journal Bookslut, while Hapworth is a hapless and unhappy freshman comp instructor. And both marry sommeliers who have become local celebrities.
Blackstone's spouse is Alpana Singh, former host of Check, Please!, now co-owner of the Boarding House. Hapworth's is Isabelle Conway, host of a popular PBS program called Vintage Attraction in which ordinary folks get together to chat about wine. Izzy, like Singh, has the rare talent of making pinots and zinfandels accessible to the average drinker.
But since much more attention is given to Izzy and Hapworth's relationship than to juicy wine-world gossip, Blackstone is probably just following the creative writing class dictum about writing what you know. To be fair, he does know about wine. For instance: you should always give your wine a good swirl before you sip. "Swirling aerated the wine, Izzy told the room, and drove its quiescent particles into motion so that you could smell (and taste) them." Bits like this are far more interesting than either of his protagonists.
Hapworth first woos Izzy with a semideranged fan e-mail, which she interprets as charming. Before you can say "Cinderfella," he's been swept into her world of wine tastings and good restaurants and designer clothes. Within months, they're married and set up in a loft in Pilsen with a pug named Ishiguru.
All is bliss, until it's not. Izzy seems to grow indifferent to the love of her life, if not downright annoyed. Hapworth is mystified.
Could it be her lingering feelings for a fellow sommelier, whom Hapworth discovers shirtless in their bed one morning when he returns home, still half drunk? (Izzy swears she slept on the couch.) It can't possibly be Hapworth's eternal mopiness and lack of ambition, his habitual lying about small details such as losing his job, or his habit of reading her texts and e-mails when she's not looking.
How lovely it would have been if Hapworth were a classic unreliable narrator, blind to his own flaws, architect of his own doom. But given the way things shake out—instead of a kick in the ass, he gets to join Izzy on a wine-tasting junket through Greece that's about as exciting as flipping through someone else's vacation photos—I think we're supposed to sympathize with him. "A new culture's customs, habits, private and public idiosyncrasies, not to mention their food and beverage," he declares on the eve of their departure. "It had no choice but to inspire me."
This sort of awkward phrasing is not atypical of Vintage Attraction. The sloppy writing, and the book's setting in the mid-aughts for no apparent reason (there are references to the White Sox playing in October, Hillary versus Obama, and BlackBerries), seem to indicate that the manuscript has been sitting around for a while. If only Blackstone had followed another bit of writing advice, imparted by Gertrude Stein, before shipping it off to the publisher: "Begin again and concentrate."