I started reading this book because it contained some tropes I like, and a setting I thought I would enjoy. Vineyards! A winery! A small town/small community setting with a character returning home for whatever reason – I usually enjoy this kind of story.
The problem here is that most of the characters go too far into negative territory and I was afraid that the author wouldn’t be able to get them out. About halfway through I was worried enough that I went seeking a review to see if the story would have a happier resolution than I thought would happen. Nope: it doesn’t. So I stopped reading.
The book opens with Matt Sheppard, the hero, facing down his father and mother on graduation day. He’s not planning to work at the family vineyard alongside his two brothers, Brady and Aidan, the poorly-named “Diamond Dust.” (Yes. Dust. Just what I want to think of when I read about wine. *cough cough*) He’s going west, to UC Davis and plans to work at another vineyard instead of the family business. His rebellion and decision to depart cause his father to cut him off financially, insuring that Matt would have to work his way through college, and telling Matt that he’ll never amount to much of anything. After that, they never speak again. Ah, those precious family memories.
Cue the present day: Matt is now in Australia, one of the best vintners in the world, and his boss Down Under is livid that he thinks the grapes can wait while he returns to Virginia for a family wedding. He assures her he’ll be back in time for the grape harvest, which is likely within a few days. Obviously Matt plans a quick visit.
So Matt returns home, only to find out that his mother, now a widow engaged to a new man, has plans. Big plans. Really horrible awful plans that made me want to smack her really, really hard. She’s decided that unless her sons, Brady, Aidan and Matt, agree to work together at the vineyard, she’s going to sell the business, the buildings, the property and all the surrounding land that she owns, effectively throwing her two older sons out of their jobs and their homes – unless Matt agrees to give up the contract he just signed, leave Australia and his own career, and tie himself to a home that gives him painful memories.
Connie, the heroine, is the current vineyard manager, and has been saving up for years to approach the Sheppard family with her desire to buy into ownership of the vineyard she’s worked at for most of her life. She’s a single mom who has worked there since around the time Matt left, if not longer, but when she learns about the plans to make the brothers take over so Mommie Dearest can retire and get married, she fears for her job, and chickens out in approaching the family with her idea. She feels that because she’s not a family member, she’ll be shut out. Matt’s older brother, Aidan, doesn’t do much to reassure her, despite his intentions to do so.
I cannot even tell you how many horrible people populate this book. Every other scene was a new and irate opportunity to growl and say, “WHAT THE FUCK.”
First, the mother. We’re told she’s strong, she’s a good person, the other characters seem to love her a great deal. But her actions “on screen” during the novel are SO HORRID I wanted to kill her after I beat her senseless with a wine bottle. This is the oddest example of “show vs. tell” I’ve seen in a character: the reader is told she’s all of these wonderful things, yet most of the time, she is blind, calculating, selfish, ruthless, self-absorbed, domineering and cruel. We’re told she’s strong, but she stands by while her first husband demeans and cuts off her son financially. We’re told she’s a fantastic person with wonderful patience, but she won’t even listen to her son when he asks why she’s doing this to him, what he did besides leave home that causes her to treat him this way.
Matt’s mother is nearly matched by Connie’s, who has diagnosed bipolar disorder, and is equally manipulative and in her own world much of the time. At one point she calls her daughter in the middle of the work week to insist she go get milk and cream because she wants to cook something she just saw on tv. When her daughter says she can’t leave the vineyard to go grocery shopping for her (she’s literally standing in the middle of a field), her mother then calls 911 saying she’s having chest pains, forcing her daughter to leave work anyway. Classic manipulative pattern – and chillingly reflective of the manipulation and selfishness of the hero’s mother, who is just as conniving and manipulative, only without the mental illness.
Oddly, I read this book on Mother’s Day, and seriously, the hero’s mother is hands down one of the worst mothers I have ever read. She’s horrid, mostly because the inconsistency of her actions in light of how insistent everyone else was that she was a good and noble person. And then there’s the heroine’s mother, who is seriously and terribly mentally ill, and mostly the daughter’s problem to deal with, manipulations, dramatic cries for help, and selfish inclinations included. One is mentally ill and all the reasons for her behavior originate there. The other is just selfish and cruelly neglectful and uninterested in her son’s happiness, and there’s no other reason for her behavior, no matter how much the other characters insist she’s so wonderful.
Even Aidan calls her on her actions:
“You’re asking him to give up a lot. Think about it…. You and I both know he has what it takes to become one of the top names in the wine industry. And now he has to give up everything he’s ever wanted to save Dad’s company? To be honest, Mom, what you’re doing is pretty shitty.”
Her throat worked as she swallowed. “Desperate times and all that.” But though her words were said lightly, her voice wobbled. Just a bit. Enough for Aidan to realize that this hadn’t been an easy decision for her. “Desperate how?” he asked. “I don’t see why it’s so black and white… Why is it Matt or none of us? Surely there are other options.”
But just like she didn’t get nervous, Diane Sheppard also didn’t back away from something just because it was difficult.
WHAT THE FUCK. Ok, first, what are these desperate times? NO idea. Maybe it’s revealed at the end but by then I hated everyone in the book save the hero that I didn’t care if the vineyard was on fire and Matt could magically sneeze the fire out.
Second, so what if the decision was hard for her? SHE DID IT ANYWAY. She put her own desires and her own wants ahead of her son’s, placed him in a terrible position personally, legally, and professionally (more about that in a minute) and if there were other options, she went with this one! Why the hell not say, “We are in trouble, please help us?” Why not inform Matt and, you know, TREAT HIM LIKE AN ADULT and explain why his presence is so important? And also, why keep your oldest son as president of the company if the company is in trouble?
Moreover, if Diane is not the kind to back away from difficult decisions, why didn’t she stand up to her asshole husband in the prologue, if having Matt around meant so much? She chooses weird moments to be so empowered – and by “weird” I mean “when they entirely serve her own interests.”
My biggest problem was that there was so little respect paid to the hero’s commitments, his own work ethic and his own career. Everyone seemed to think his desire to be somewhere away from his emotionally abusive father’s home was abnormal. WHAT THE FUCK. It made me sad for the hero, that everyone was telling him his completely normal feelings were wrong.
Every character takes a turn giving Matt a hard time for what seemed to me to be completely acceptable and self-empowering decisions. For example, Brady is quite frank about his low opinion of Matt:
“You didn’t want to figure out how to get along with Dad so you went to a college on the other side of the country.”
“I went to UC Davis because is viticulture and enology program is one of the best in the country.”
The fact that it was in California was just a side benefit. One that he was thankful for after that last fight with his father.
“You never search for jobs,” his brother continued. “You wait until one falls into your lap. if they don’t you shrug and find something else to do until the next one comes along. Same with women.”
[Matt] fisted his hands, his arms trembling as anger surged. Unlike what his family thought, he did not sit back and wait for jobs to fall from the freaking sky. It’d taken him years to build his reputation.
Again. WHAT THE FUCK. Why on earth should Matt learn to get along with an abusive parent? How does his brother know all this, anyway? Does he follow Matt on Facebook and watch his status updates about how he’s sitting by the pool waiting for a job to fall on his head? Matt had just come back to Virginia for the first time in a few years, so how does Brady know any of this crap?
Aidan also gives Matt a hard time for being a shiftless, goal-less drifter, and yet has already revealed that he’s aware Matt has a good reputation as a vintner – and is in fact one of the best in the world. At one point, Aidan gives Matt a cold lecture about all the lessons he learned from their abusive father, including the value of a handshake and the importance of honoring commitments, implying that Matt doesn’t understand either concept because he left home and didn’t live up to family expectations.
Meanwhile, Matt is taking justifiably irate phone calls from his boss in Australia. She’s furious that he’s going to renege on his contract and is going to file a breach of contract suit against him (understandably so, I should think). Aidan’s by-the-way response: Matt shouldn’t worry because the family is going to pay his legal fees and any judgment against him.
AGAIN. WHAT THE FUCK. Don’t you worry your pretty head, sugar britches. Don’t worry about your reputation or the hit your credibility will take because your mom blackmailed you into staying home and working in a place with horrible memories for you. We’ll deal with that pesky vineyard in Australia because Family is More Important, even an abusive one populated by complete fuckmonkeys. But remember, we all know you have no goals and don’t know the value of a commitment anyway.
Oh yeah, this is a romance. Sorry about that. I nearly forgot the “romance” part. Matt notices Connie, and Connie has it bad for Matt – along with one of her very young daughters, who has a truly cringe-inducing crush on Matt – but even when he notices her, he’s still miserable. Connie isn’t a bright spot in Matt’s misery, or a reason to re-evaluate his circumstances and perhaps change his perspective on them. He’s looking at her as a fling or a diversion, which demeans him and her and pisses off his brothers, who see her as their honorary sister – not to mention she’s their employee. Matt & Connie’s interactions are almost always fighting in the first half of the book, and one or the other will do something stupid to create more misunderstandings and resentment between them. There’s no end to Matt’s misery, even with the woman he’s supposed to hook up with, seeing as this is a romance and all.
As I said in the beginning of this review, about midway through I became concerned that so many characters were starting off in negative territory I didn’t think there was a possible happy ending for any of them, much less the hero. I was beginning to not care in the least what happened to Connie, the family, the vines, or the brothers, and wanted a very large glass of wine to medicate myself. I was as miserable as Matt. This is not the reaction I go looking for in a romance.
In a rare move for me, I started looking for reviews to see if there was any hope for me and this book. Even if there were spoilers, I didn’t want to waste any more emotion and time if there wasn’t going to be a satisfactory ending. Seriously, this book was making me miserable.
I found this review which not only echoed everything that was bothering me about the mother but indicated that the ending wouldn’t resolve as happily as I’d wished. There was so much negative to overcome, there weren’t enough pages to make it so. No vines were growing strong under the pile of manure that was this family, and it was time for me to stop being angry and go read something else.
Matt’s mother and brothers needed the Anvil of Justice or at least a Righteous Asswhupping and a Big Ol’ Grovel to restore any balance of happiness. But Matt was expected to come around to their way of thinking, which was of course “the right way to be.” I didn’t care much about the heroine, who was all too often whiny, resentful, quiet when she needed to speak up, and speaking up when she ought to have kept quiet. I was angry at everyone in the story except for the hero, and sympathized with his desire to be independent.
I didn’t want him to end up with Connie or anyone present in the story. I didn’t want to listen to another character telling Matt that wanting to continue his career was selfish, that he should value a family who mistreated him and cut him off more than his own desires. I could tell by the point where I stopped reading that the only “happy ending” would be for Matt to succumb to the crazy that surrounded him and “realize” that they were right, that he did want to stay home, live in Virginia, run the family business, be with Connie and her creepy crushing-on-him daughter, and stay there forever and ever amen. This is not a happy ending in my opinion, and judging from the review I found, that’s the ending I was going to get. This is not even a compromise. This is Stockholm Syndrome.
More importantly, the message of the novel was aborrhent: tolerate what you despise, endure what you feel is abuse because family is more important. To me, that is the antithesis of romance. Romance is about being the best version of yourself, and valuing yourself and others as much as those around you value you.
Really, what I wanted most was for Matt to say, “Screw you. I’m going to honor my commitments and be with people who aren’t manipulative assholes” and end the story after chapter one.