Isn’t It Romantic by Ron Hansen
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Ron Hansen continues to display his versatility and well-developed writing skills in his latest book, Isn’t It Romantic. Unlike the seriousness of Hansen’s earlier books, there are scenes in Isn’t It Romantic that will have readers laughing out loud. Written well in advance of the current tension in French-American relations, the arrival of French visitors to a small town in Midwestern America creates the right scene for wet and wild humor, and a well-told romance.
Here’s an excerpt (pp. 42-49) of a scene where Nebraska garage mechanic and vintner, Owen, takes Pierre, heir to a fine French winery, on a tasting tour of Owen’s best offering:
Hanging from the fluorescent ceiling light was a sign that read, HUSKER FOOTBALL SPOKEN HERE. Owen lifted off some cash receipts that were stabbed onto an upended wooden block with a ten-penny nail pounded through it. He got serious for a few seconds as he effected arithmetic, then he shoved them inside the cash register, saying, "When I'm hither and yon, I'll let folks fill up on their own and leave me IOUs. We have that kind of town."
Next to the video tapes was a door marked Private and he motioned for Pierre to follow him as he sidestepped to it through the high walls of clutter. With his hand on the doorknob, Owen stopped and peered at Pierre solemnly.
"You gotta say, 'Go Big Red.'"
Pierre just stared at him.
"It's what we say in honor of our four-time national champs. You try it now: 'Go Big Red!'"
Pierre, just mimicking, said, "Go beeg uhr-red."
"Now say, 'What game you watching, ref?'" But Owen laughed and the door gave way to a bungalow attached to
the gas station.
The front room seemed furnished wholly in red blankets, bleacher cushions, jackets, banners, pens, glassware, and framed posters of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Even the lamps and red telephone were particular to the team. Owen heaved his sizeable self down on his blanketed sofa and with fresh eyes surveyed the magnificence of what he had created there. "I just wish I could be looking at all this like you are now. I'm kinda jaded after all these years. There's fancy touches I hardly see anymore. And the thrill of a perfectly unified interior motif isn't there like it once was."
Pierre was in scan mode and unsure of his emotions. "C'est de'gueulasse," he said. (It's disgusting.)
Owen got up and went to a bookcase that held his many tomes on wine as well as Husker memorabilia and annuals that went back to the days when Bob Devaney so brilliantly coached. "What 'd you say your surname was?" Hearing nothing from Pierre, he asked. "Pierre . . . what?"
"Smith," Pierre said.
"Are you funning me, Pete?"
"It is that we are British on my father's side."
Owen frowned like a welfare worker. "Was that a burden when you were a boy? "
Pierre shrugged and did that puffy French thing with his mouth. "They could not pronounce. I was called Smeet."
Owen seemed to get the shivers. And then he hunted up the Smith name in his vintner's directories as Pierre fascinatedly wandered about the bungalow, examining the Husker paraphernalia. Wallpaper borders bore the Nebraska Cornhusker logo. A dining room sideboard was filled with Husker dishware and glassware and steins. A signed picture of Doctor Tom Osborne hung there like a household saint. The bathroom was painted red. Pierre switched on the light and heard the Husker theme song of “There is no place like Nebraska" harangue him from the overhead vent before he hurriedly switched it off. A sponge finger gesturing that the team was #1 was on the commode's flush handle and the seat cover was furred in red. Pierre hesitantly lifted it like someone fearing the worst in a horror movie. There was no blood, no floating head.
Owen went to another book. "Here we are. Pierre Smith, neego-see-ant."
Walking out of the bathroom, Pierre corrected his pronunciation: "Negociant."
"Why, for goodness sakes, you're the WalMart of wines over there!"
"But no. That is my big father."
"Your beeg fahzer? Oh, your grandfather! But you're inheriting the business, right?
Owen was all but overtaken by delirious joy. "You could not know this, but it's been my life's work and my great big impossible dream to someday chaperone my wines into the loving embrace of a fancy wine importer, and lo and behold from out of the blue comes waltzing into my life the MVP of the wholesale market!"
Owen put a Budweiser football schedule marker at his name and solemnly placed the directory in his bookcase. With wet eyes he said, "I have a feeling of reverence about this occasion. I mean, what are the odds of meeting you here, now, without a handy boost from good ol’ divine providence? You represent my ship coming in, Mon-sir Pierre Smith. And me? I represent the flat-out best new wine you'll ever taste."
Pierre registered that with great disbelief, and a feeling of What-else-can-go-wrong? "You are makings the wines?"
Pierre pointed to the floor. "In Nebraska~
Owen crooked his finger in a hithering gesture and hustled out back through the kitchen and screen door to the yard while getting out his padlock key. Pierre hesitantly followed. Owen called behind him, "Experimented with sixty percent cabernet sauvignon grape and about thirty percent merlot, plus some cabernet franc and malbec to keep it true to the soft and fruity Bordelaise style." He unlocked a padlock to a root cellar whose doors were aslant at his feet. "But what I happened on by sheer accident was the petit verdot grape, which doesn't yield all that much so it's not commercially viable, but you add about five percent of that to the mix and you get surprising depth of character and a rich, reddish-black color in an otherwise fragile wine."
Pierre understood just enough to be speechless.
Owen heaved up the cellar doors and paused. "Say, 'Go Big Red!"' Pierre began, "Go . . ." but Owen elbowed him. "I was just joshing ya." He let the doors bang wide, scattering indignant insects whose only home is the grass. "My reds are big, I'll grant you," he said, "but they're also surprisingly complex, with just a hint of black currant and a strong, durable finish."
Owen and Pierre rumbled down the wooden steps to an underground root cellar that held tall racks of hundreds of bottled wines. Owen screwed an overhead sixty-watt light-bulb tight to illuminate the cellar, and Pierre considered his precise arrangements and his orderly tools and charts. At least here Owen was perfectly organized.
Pierre asked, "Tous ces vins. . . . Yours?"
Owen nodded. "You want a taste?"
Pierre shrugged noncommittally, like a high school kid trying to be cool. And then curiosity carried the day and he said, "Okay."
Owen went to a rack, got out a high-shouldered bottle, and proudly held it up to Pierre. "Big Red, that's our brand name. And see here on the label? Miss in boo-telly ow chat-o."
Pierre corrected, "Mise en bouteille au chateau.
"Means I make it right here. And on the flip side," Owen said, delicately giving it a half revolution, "the complete Husker football scores for that vintage."
"I'll just open her up. Well, not that one." Owen got another. "Here we go." Owen uncorked the wine with great effort and gently decanted it over a candle flame while saying, "Maybe you and me could get some kind of deal going. I mean, I didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Who's going to take a red wine serious if it comes from Nebraska? We aren't especially known for our viticulture here, and you have to go clear to Omaha to find a good oenologist. But if you were to put your name on the label or just represented it some way, you could get my lovely darlings the admiration I personally think they deserve." Owen handed him a half-filled, red plastic cup. "At least those are my main bullet points. You can take the agenda any way you want from here."
Pierre suspiciously assessed the aroma of the purplish wine. "Ce nest pas du vin, c'est du sarcasme," (This isn't wine, it's sarcasm.)
"Don't judge that pretty miss too quick now. You gotta give the shy ones a second or two to introduce themselves."
Pierre sniffed again. "C'est charmant. D'une maniere brouillonne.” (Charming. In a slovenly way.)
Owen assumed praise. "You don't know how it pleases me to hear you say that. All my friends think my reds are real tasty, but you, you've got a highly trained palate and an Old World discrimination that's woefully lacking in these climes."
Hopelessly, Pierre drank as if to debase himself, as if he were quaffing Sterno. He was prepared to wince, and his hand shot to his mouth as he forced a swallow, but then he just stared ahead, wide-eyed and mystified, for the finish of the wine was excellent, wholly unlike the poison he'd expected. "She has changed clothes!" he said.
"Oh, much better than that," Owen said, smiling. "She's shucked them off, and she is sheer beauty."
"Mais oui,” he said, "it's so!"
Owen swished the wine from side to side in his mouth with a milk churning sound and then let it ooze down his throat. "A hint of cherries and green cigar in this one, isn't there?"
"lly a quelque chose." (There is something.)
"The secret's the water. All my grapevines are fed from Frenchman's Creek. We got our own little microclimate along those ruddy banks."
Pierre sipped again, evaluated, and offered flatly, "C'est bon." (It's good.)
"Music to my ears," Owen said.
After finishing his plastic cup, Pierre handed it to Owen for more.
Owen got down another bottle of Big Red and grinned as he examined its vintage. "We beat Florida State in the
Orange Bowl this year."
We can all find love in some of the strangest places, and it’s worth taking a dip into Frenchman’s Creek’s magic waters as you read Isn’t It Romantic.
Steve Hopkins, March 25, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Isn't It Romantic.htm
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