Late last night I finished reading Timothy Egan’s The Winemaker’s Daughter. This debut novel tells the story of Brunella Cartolano, an architect who works to save the family vineyards in the arid wine country east of Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
The novel is ambitious: It moves from Seattle, where Brunella is trying to save the waterfront fishing culture; to a desert coulee high in the Cascades, where her father grows Nebbiolo grapes and makes award-winning wines; to the reservation, where Forest Service Agent Leon Treadtoofar is investigating a huge forest fire that claimed the lives of several smokejumpers, including Brunella’s brother; to Montana, and the Piemonte in Italy.
The Winemaker’s Daughter has a number of interest plots, including vicious battles over water rights; greedy developers; an old Norwegian fisherman thrown overboard from his own boat; and a computer-generated villain. The problem Egan faces is pulling all these together. Although he does so at times, the novel seems especially disjointed at times.
These convoluted and competing plot lines make for a difficult read in the beginning, but when Egan slows down, some powerful moments emerge, among them the smoke-jumping episodes and Brunella’s dramatic meeting in a church with one of the badly burned smoke-jumpers.
I love Egan’s ability to detail the settings of his non-fiction, here, however, those details often overtake the story and substitute for some much needed character development. I came to know and perhaps even understand Brunella and her father, but the other characters fell flat.
Despite these drawbacks, I recommend reading the novel if you’re interested in water rights issues, the history of the Northwest, and the importance of water in the west.