In 1954, two quite remarkable things, that may or may not be connected, happened at the Saint Antoine vineyards, in the Beaujolais wine region:
- The vintage was of exceptional quality; a wine that in the years before and the years after would be considered as no more that a decent table wine was lauded for a single year.
- A man saw an unidentified flying object. He reported it to the authorities and they filed away his report, another to add to the exceptionally high number of similar reports that year.
Twenty-four years later, in 1978, that same man recognised the same unidentified flying object that he had seen in a very famous film. When he said just that, he wasn’t taken seriously, and so he went home. He decided that it was time to drink his last bottle of that wonderful 1954 vintage; he added a splash to his dog’s bowl, as he always did; and then they went out for a walk. Neither of them were seen again, and it seemed that they has disappeared into thin air.
That is simply the introduction; and it will all be explained in the main story, which begins in 2017 and is full of the charm, the warmth, the lightness, the humanity, for which its author is renowned – and, of course, a dash of the fantastical.
That story begins with a man named Hubert ,who lives in a building in Paris that has been in his family for generations; though their stake has diminished over the years, and Hubert only owns the apartment where he lives. After a sparsely attended residents meeting he goes down to his cellar to look for something; he spots a dusty bottle of 1954 Vintage Beaujolais; but then he realised that he had locked himself in.
Hubert’s cries for help are heard by an American who has just arrived in Paris for the very first time, and who has rented an apartment for the duration of his trip. Bob is startled, but he is delighted to meet one of his temporary neighbours, and to be invited to share the bottle of wine. Two more residents arrive home – Julien, a cocktail waiter at Harry’s Bar, and Magalie, a restorer of antique ceramics – and they are invited along too.
Next morning, the quartet who had drunk the vintage wine woke up in 1954.
It took them some time to realise what had happened. Hubert, who had the strongest ties to the place where he lived and his history, was first.
Hubert loosened his tie and walked rapidly back home, trying as best he could to make sense of the morning’s events. Unless it was a dream, Salvador Dalí was staying at the Hotel Meurice, all the buses were vintage, street sellers had reverted to using hand-drawn carts and the large moustachioed man surveying his building work whom he’d greeted as he left this morning was none other than Monsieur Bouvuer himself, the founder of the charcuterie of that name. The charcuterie that had opened in 1954. Hubert stopped. 1954. The same year as the wine.
Bob, who was a stranger to the city, took was last to realise what had happened; but having someone with them who was unfamiliar with the country was a blessing for the group, because he had accepted Francs in exchange for his US Dollars and when he knew what had happened he was happy to share them with his new-found friends.
It was lovely watching the four of them out in the Paris of 1954 – which was beautifully evoked – and their adventures brought lovely and diverse qualities to the story.
- Hubert met a long-lost relative, he discovered that his story was rather different to the one he had been told, and he learned something that could be very useful to him in 2017.
- Julien went to the bar where he worked met its founder – Harry MacElhone – and impressed him and his customers by creating a wonderful new cocktail.
- Bob did the things he had always intended to do on his holiday, and he did something that he hoped might change his future.
- Magalie went to the haberdashery where she thought she might run into the grandmother who had brought her up and who she missed terribly.
It was lovely to move through the city with them, and to spot many notable figures who were in Paris in 1954. I won’t name them all, but I must share one encounter.
Still thinking out how his new cocktail would turn out, Julien paid little attention to the couple who had come in and sat down at the bar. They were discussing the dress the woman would have to wear for the preview of a film in New York. Her elegant companion smiles, ‘Just two more fittings, Audrey, I promise.’
‘I’m counting on you, Hubert. This film is important to me and it’s also important to do justice to your creations,’ replied the young girl in delightfully accented French.
Julien turned to look, and froze. The young girl with the short hair and dark eyes smiled at him and asked, ‘What is that pretty purple drink?’
‘It’s something I’m trying,’ stammered Julien, ‘with violet syrup. But no one has tasted it yet.’
‘I love that no one has lasted it yet,’ enthused Audrey.
‘I’ll have one too,’ said the elegant young man.
As he prepared their cocktails, Julien listened discreetly and deduced that she had made a film, ‘Sabrina’, which took place in Paris and was about to be released.
‘What do you think?’ asked Julien anxiously when she had taken two little sips
‘What do I think?’ she repeated, looking doubtfully up at the ceiling before looking at Julien. ‘It’s very, very good!’ she declared, with a disarming smile.
All of this was lovely, but it wasn’t something that could go on for ever.
Julien had been able to put together a plan of action to take the four friends back to 2017, because he was the great-grandson of the man who went missing in 1978, he knew what had happened in 1954 …. but would it work?
The resolution of the story was not as strong as what had gone before, because there was an awful lot to sort out. It was all sorted out, but the plot mechanics and contrivances overwhelmed the charm of the characters and their experiences for a while.
I can’t think of a way it could have been handled better though, there’s nothing I would have wanted taken out to make things simpler, and so I am thinking if it as the small price that I had to pay for all the lovely things in this book.
I might have used the would lovely too many times, but I think it’s the right word for this book.
It’s not perfect, but it is a lovely confection.