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

Book Pairing: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats & Aythaya White

Art of Hearing HeartbeatsThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Phillip Sendker (Originally published in German as Das Herzenhoren)
New York: Other Press, 2002.

“Do you believe in love?” the old man asks. “Can words sprout wings? Can they glide like butterflies through the air? Can they captivate us, carry us off into another world? Can they open the last secret chambers of our soul?”

Jan-Phillip Sendker does just that in The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. Part contemporary mystery, part ancient fairy tale, the story weaves together two time periods, two cultures, and two lives lived by the same man – Tin Win, a Wall Street attorney who on the morning of his daughter’s college graduation disappears. “I love you, little one,” he tells her that morning. “Never forget that.” Later that day he flies from New York to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to Thailand where his passport is discovered in a ditch.

Four years later, his daughter Julia attempts to solve the mystery of why her father left her and why he never spoke of his boyhood in Burma or Mi Mi, his “beloved.” Julie knows of Mi Mi from a love letter she finds written but never mailed by her father. The letter states how Mi Mi has been with him for each of the five thousand eight hundred and sixty-four days since he last heard the beating of her heart. “When the time comes,” he wrote, “I will return.”

U Ba, the old man now seated across from Julia in a Burmese teahouse, promises to answer her questions about her father and his Mi Mi if only she will listen to his tale, and what a tale it is for the young Tin Win that U Ba describes is nothing like the successful man-about-town that Julia knew. This Tin Win is the cursed orphan of peasants who is cared for by a loving, sympathetic neighbor. As a young man he studies with Buddhist monks where one day he meets Mi Mi. Each is physically challenged and as their friendship grows, so does their love – a  love that echoes a fairy tale that Tin Win regularly told Julia as a child – the Tale of the Prince, the Princess, and the Crocodile.

The beauty of the novel is the way Sendker weaves Eastern spirituality with the lush yet impoverished world of Burma, a place that dramatically contrasts with the hurried pace of upscale New York. It’s as if the two exist in parallel worlds – in New York, U Ba observes, people “love to be dazzled” and rely “too heavily on eyes and neglect other senses.” In Burma, people “learn to divine the true nature of things, their substance, and the eyes are rather a hindrance than a help.” Sendker draws together these two worlds and their contrasting priorities to reconcile how a father could leave a child, and in so doing, allow the child to see that there is more to life than is visible.

As Julia undergoes her quest, the reader travels with her not only into an unfamiliar place but also into the soul of the characters, especially the soul of her father who understands the meaning of pure love. In Burma he “possessed all the happiness a person could find. He loved and was loved. Unconditionally.”

My Wine Recommendation

Aythaya WhiteThe Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a joyous book, a fairy tale for adults that brings a sense of happiness that will stay with you for a long time. In addition to the box of tissues you may need as you read, my wine recommendation is Aythaya White from the Myanmar (Burma) Estate.  A lush wine made of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20%Chenin Blanc, it has contrasting yet complementary aromas of gooseberries, grapefruit and green apple. Like the story, it delivers a fresh and pleasant after-taste. ($9 when ordered from the estate at http://www.myanmar-vineyard.com.)