Reviewed by Emma Crowley
It started with ‘happily ever after’, yet just three years after Bella’s fairy-tale wedding to irrepressible Charlie Wellbeloved, her best friend, Maddy, is expecting a baby, while Bella’s own weight gain is purely from comfort eating. Only her little Labrador, Dolly, can boost her spirits as she gloomily surveys her failing marriage and fledgling interior design business.
Dovecot Farm is just a rainstorm away from ruin, but Charlie is hoping against hope his family vineyard will produce a vintage year, saving his business, his childhood home and – most of all – his marriage...
When handsome Rufus appears in the tight-knit Havenbury community, he quickly charms Bella and makes himself indispensable to Charlie. But is he really too good to be true...
Many thanks to Allison and Busby for my copy of A Vintage Year to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
Last year I read and loved the début novel, The Homecoming, from this author under the pseudonym of Rosie Howard. Now she is back with a return visit to the same setting, Havenbury Magna, but this time although several of the characters we previously met do feature our main focus turns to Bella and her husband Charlie. They run the vineyard that overlooks the village but times are tough and things are not going as well financially or personally as they would have hoped. They have been married for three years but it feels like the spark and enjoyment has well and truly gone out of their relationship which is no wonder given the pressure they are under.
Charlie has ambitious plans for what he wants to do with the vineyard he inherited upon the death of his father but bad luck and bad weather have been against them. He lives in a goldfish bowl of stress and anxiety and these feelings are always increasing. As circumstances change, there are plenty of tests and challenges sent the couples way which make for an intriguing if at times frustrating read - simply because you and their friends can see what needs to happen but you despair will reunification ever occur? The question is can they survive what is about to be thrown at them or will their already fragile relationship shatter and crumble permanently? Charlie has a long held aspiration to open his own winery where he can process the grapes himself therefore saving himself some money but the way things are going this is very much a dream that he can't see becoming a reality. I really didn't think for the majority of the book that we got to know the real Charlie at all. He was just a bundle of stress and worry and not the real person that Bella fell so deeply in love with. He wasn't his normal self and his actions and words didn't show the true genuine, natural person that he was.
Whereas with Bella I felt we really got underneath her skin and she wasn't afraid to share the person that she was. She wore her heart on her sleeve and never shied away from admitting how she was feeling. Well at least to her best friend and confidant Maddy whose story we followed in the previous book and I loved seeing what stage she was at in her life now. Was she happy and content? What big things might be around the corner for her? She took more of a back seat in this story but yet she was always there for Bella especially when her world spectacularly imploded. You always need someone to have your back, to fight in your corner when you need help and support at the most desperate of times. Especially when you are fragile and vulnerable and not at your strongest point and therefore feel incapable of fighting for what you believe in. Maddy was that person for Bella and I loved the friendship and bond that existed between the pair which only strengthened the further I progressed through the story.
Bella loves Charlie deeply but even she can see their marriage is definitely not what it once was and that any little fault or problem will expose the bigger cracks that exist between them. She is an interior designer but her business has yet to get off the ground so her lack of contributing some money to the already very much precarious finances is a bone of contention between herself and Charlie. But apart from all that I felt Bella really lacked belief in herself particularly when it came to her appearance. She thinks she doesn't appeal to Charlie any more and that she just keeps piling on the pounds only bringing her confidence even further down. Her ego needs a boost and combined with the fact the much longed for children have failed to materialise she feels an utter failure on so many fronts. So the weaknesses are there and it's when Rufus arrives and promises them the world that the cracks widen and their lives are changed.
It was clear from the outset that Rufus was a man with oodles of money which he believed he could throw at any problem and it would easily resolve itself. Or even if he used said money to get anything he wanted even if really it should have been well beyond his reach. I wouldn't blame Charlie for leaping at his offer but little did he realise by accepting help from Rufus in order to fulfil his dream, that said dream would more than likely turn into a personal nightmare of epic proportions. The situation that was the catalyst for the main eruption of the story was one in which I thought Bella was really backed into a corner with little or no room for escape or manoeuvre. If I had been in her place I would probably have done the same and I think many other readers will be of the same opinion. I don't judge her in the slightest for it as her intentions were genuine and all she really wanted to do was help. She viewed it as getting herself and Charlie out of the precarious hole they were in and therefore there could be a new path they could venture down. I don't think she expected it to backfire as much as she did and to have to endure the fallout that ensued. It's how the pair weather this storm that made for a very good read but as I have mentioned at the same time it was frustrating that egos couldn’t have been put aside and things discussed out in the open before it was too late and the damage done would become irreparable.
I never could warm to Rufus despite all the attention and money he flaunted around Charlie and Bella and the second half of the book saw a change in Bella. She became a person she was never meant to be and it was not of her own making. I felt she lost her way and she lost control. She was sliding further into a situation where decisions were taken out of her hands and even Maddy could see how her friend was changing. Things weren't making her happier deep inside. The reader and everyone bar the most important characters to the overall story could see what needed to occur in order for anyone to find their happy ending. I questioned how the author was going to resolve this if at all because there were points where I could see that things had just gone too far, too much had occurred, rash things had been said and there could be no going back or forgiveness. Yet Rosie Howard had a brilliant twist up her sleeve that really I should have seen coming and I am still kicking myself that I did not guess it. It slotted in so well with the overall plot and everything made sense. Motivation and betrayal spring to mind with loyalties tested and questioned many times over.
Change quite clearly needed to occur in Havenbury Magna and it's how Rosie Howard instigated this change and the way emotions, relationships and friendships are tested and explored throughout A Vintage Year that make this book a very good read. I felt a deep connection to Bella which I think is down to the fact that I had read The Homecoming. If I had not read Maddy's story I don't think I would have realised and understood how good the author's writing is and how she can weave an excellent tale that you will certainly want to read in one sitting. The Homecoming, by the very narrowest of margins, would be my favourite of the two books but really this is a great series of two books that deserve to be read one after the other. I look forward to seeing where Rosie Howard will venture with her next book, back to Havenbury Magna or will a new setting and cast of characters be introduced.
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