We are All Made of Stars & London Cru Chancery Lane Chardonnay

we are all made of stars coverWe are All Made of Stars – Rowan Coleman. New York: Ballantine Books, 2015.

Can a novel set in a hospice be joyful? Can a book about death-bed letters be uplifting? It can when crafted by the capable hands of Rowan Coleman, whose writing style is often compared to Jojo Moyes (Me Before You). During seven days in a London neighborhood, the lives of seven characters evolve from being stranger to companions, friends, and love interest.

Stella, the central character, is a night nurse at the Hospice of St. Francice. She chooses this shift so that she and her husband, Vincent, can co-habit as he struggles with PTSD and alcoholism after losing not only a leg and but also a close friend in Afghanistan. She occupies the long night hours writing letters for dying patients. It is one such letter that gives the book its title: “I am the air, the moon, the stars,” a patient writes to his beloved. “Everything made becomes part of the universe, and everything that is part of the universe becomes us. For we are all made of stars.” Whether the letter’s intent is to apologize, to confess, to advise, or to reassure, Stella faithfully pens them, promising not to mail them until after each patient passes on.

It’s a promise she keeps until she meets Grace and hears her dark secret – a secret she feels Grace should share while she is still alive.

Across the hall from Grace is Hope, a twenty-year-old with cystic fibrosis who is recuperating at the hospice from a dangerous infection. A college dropout, book cover designer, and writer of songs, she is resigned to living her life with her mum and dad, safe from the outside world. Her best friend, Ben, sees it differently, encouraging her to take a chance and embrace life. “When you feel afraid,” he advises her, “go outside at night and look up, because when you do that, and you think of all those other stars out there, nothing on this earth is frightening anymore. Nothing.”

Down the street from Stella’s home lives Hugh – a reclusive historian whose daily routine is interrupted by a new next door neighbor, Sarah. A struggling single mom to a ten year old son, she encourages Hugh to live in the now: “It’s not easy, being in this world. Picking yourself up, getting yourself together, time after time, only for some bastard to whack you back down. But what else can you do, right?”

These seven characters are interconnected by a cat. At the hospice, where he seems to know exactly who needs comforting, his name is Shadow. When he is eating bacon at Hugh’s house, he’s known as Jake. And when he snuggles next to Sarah’s son, he answers to Ninja. In some ways, he is the living embodiment of the book’s theme – the connections between people and the universe that surrounds them. Cats live in the now – a lesson that all the characters learn. “This is what matters,” Hugh realizes. “This moment, this present, this life, this death.”

The book ends, appropriately, with a letter written from Stella to Vincent addressing, among other things, the importance of hand-written letters. “On the page,” she writes, “words become immortal, beautiful, personal, heartfelt, and special. A letter is a memory that will never be lost, will never fade or be forgotten.”

 

My Wine Recommendation

London CruA short trip across town would take these characters to London Cru – a winery based in a former gin distillery in South London. Using grapes sourced from Germany and the south of France, they produce cool-climate wines that have won numerous awards. For a versatile bottle that would please everyone, choose their 2017 Chancery Lane Chardonnay. With a taste more like Chablis than an oaky Napa Chardonnay, the wine is light and fresh with flavors of apples and pears. It pairs well with game, oysters, or even a fresh English garden salad. $20

This Is Your Life, Harriett Chance & Barefoot Bubbly Brute Cuvee or Gifft Pinot Noir Rose

this is your lifeThis is Your Life, Harriet Chance! – Jonathan Evison. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2015.

This is your life, Harriet! Over the course of this book Jonathan Evison mimics the voice of 1950’s reality show host Ralph Edwards who treated Hollywood celebrities to a retrospective look at their lives, complete with appearances from family, coworkers and friends.

In this story Harriet is visited by people who take her on a trip down memory lane, sharing some of their deep secrets along the way. She is transported from her home in Seattle where, at the age of 78, she shops for bran cereal and takes calcium supplements, to her 20s when she aspired to become a legal eagle like her father, back to a childhood where she watched the Bacchus style partying of her parents, and through those difficult years of raising two children while her husband seemed to be forever traveling for work.

First to join her on her trips is her loving husband, Bernard. Yes, she knows he is now dead after a slow battle with dementia, but somehow here he is! It was a solid marriage, thinks Harriet, where for 50 years her daily routine was: “Eat what Bernard eats, vote how Bernard votes, love how Bernard loves and ultimately learn to want out of life what Bernard wants out of life.” What she didn’t realize was that Bernard was unfaithful to her on those business trips for more than 40 years. Forty years! Imagine that! And she didn’t have a clue!

The fact that she is now on an all-expenses-paid Alaskan cruise that Bernard purchased might be one hint of the secrets he kept from her because Harriett certainly never expressed an interest in visiting Alaska. The truth is Bernard bought the trip for himself and his mistress, so no wonder Harriett feels a bit unstable as she stares out a porthole at a little harbor wher cre “cruisers gawk and gander and graze, clutching digital cameras and street maps, their sweatshirts emblazoned with moose and grizzly bears.” She wasn’t supposed to be here!

Joining Bernard on stage are her two loving children Skip and Caroline. Of course, she’s happy to see Skip. He’s her favorite. Everybody knows that, especially his younger sister Caroline. Might that be why she was such a difficult child who now, as a middle-aged adult, still battles a drinking problem and can’t seem to hold a job? Could she have known for all those years that she would never measure up to adorable Skip? Or does Harriett have a deeper secret of her own, one that perhaps may explain why Caroline was never close to her father? And Skip, well, perhaps there’s more to him too, like why he is so eager for Harriett to move into Sunny Acres, a senior care facility, and sign over to him the deed to her house. Might his loving concern be more self-interest?

Jonathan Evison goes back in time for the next guest, Uncle Charlie. No, he’s not really Harriett’s uncle but her father’s law partner, yet Charlie always insisted on a more, shall I say, personal relationship with Harriett. Starting from childhood, he liked to get her alone and flatter her, and hug her, and encourage her to come to him at any time for help, for advice, for companionship. There was that one time when she was working late and found herself alone with Uncle Charlie. That’s a secret Harriett has worked hard to conceal.

Finally there’s Mildred, Harriett’s best friend, who was supposed to join her on this voyage. Through the years, Harriett shared all her hopes and wishes and dreams with Mildred. She was Harriett’s faithful friend, kind and considerate. Wonder why she backed out of the cruise? Might she have a secret of her own? Perhaps she will write a letter for Harriett to read once she’s safely in her cabin. After all, what happens on the boat stays on the boat!

So here is Harriet at 78, still following her elders’ advice: “Just be a good woman, and bear the load life hands you. Put on some lipstick and live a little. And order another martini while you’re at it.” But Harriett has to wonder: has she become all that she could have been in life? Between the lines of this glibly written story, Evison shows compassion for his central character and allows the reader to wonder: Am I all that different from Harriett? Have I become all that I once aspired to be?

My Wine Recommendations

barefoot_bubbly_brut_bottleGIFFT pinot roseSince Harriett is traveling on the Carnival Cruise Line, I recommend Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvee from the basic wine package. This sparkling wine from California is crisp and lively just like Harriett and pairs nicely with late night buffets! ($9) If she goes for the wine package, then she would enjoy a 2016 Gafft Pinot Noir Rose from the estate of Kathy Lee Gifford in Monterey, CA. Since Harriett is adventuresome (just like Kathy) she should order a bottle delivered to her room with a cheese and fruit board. What fun! ($15)