I just finished reading Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris. Harris, the author of Chocolat (on which the movie was based) and Five Quarters of the Orange, seems to enjoy writing stories that focus on well-developed characters, rural life, and food. And I am only too happy to read them!
Blackberry Wine tells the story of Jay Winesap, a washed-up author who, in a moment of inspiration, buys a farm in the French countryside. The place speaks to him about his past, about something he feels he has lost, about something that he hopes he can recapture.
We learn that as a youth, Jay developed a relationship with an eccentric gardener named Joe Cox. Jay spent his summers hanging around Joe's garden, weeding, tending to plants, and listening to Joe's wild stories about life. With his famous parents divorced and too busy to involve themselves in Jay's affairs, Joe becomes a sort of surrogate parent for the boy. Jay is crushed when Joe leaves with no explanation.
The story alternates between revealing current events in Jay's life (fixing up the farmhouse, embarking on a new novel, meeting the townspeople, etc.) and detailing his relationship with Joe and his formative experiences as a teenager.
I really enjoyed this novel. Harris has a descriptive writing style that I like, and, though many of her novels are reminiscent of one another (all set in small European villages, all preoccupied with amusing character sketches and village life, all incorporating food), the formula works. At 350 pages or so, this was a quick and entertaining read.
My only complaint - the first third or so of the book was a bit choppy, alternating too abruptly from the past to the present and back again. This defect improved as the book progressed; Harris allowed more time in each flashback/forward so that the reader could become more engaged in the narrative.