A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read.
The story up for discussion this month was “The Wine-Taster”* by Jeffrey Archer, a former politician who has written an estimated sixteen novels, three plays, four children’s books, eight short story collections, and three books about his stint in prison.**
This particular story centers on a challenge given to a soft-spoken wine connoisseur by a brash oaf of a man with more money and opinions than brains. The braggart, who clearly knows nothing about wine, goads the connoisseur into betting that he can identify, by taste, five of the finest and most expensive wines in the braggart’s cellar. To the wine-taster’s shock, all of his identifications are wrong— either he has lost his palate or the bet was fixed . . . or maybe something else is going on.
As usual, the opinions of this group of feisty readers were a learning experience:
The general consensus was that “The Wine-Taster” is well-written and fun to read—which was a good thing, as most of them read it several times to try to figure out the ending.
The readers who expected a straightforward ending thought the braggart cheated. The readers who read the most mysteries thought the butler—who was present during the tasting—had done something to the wine so it tasted off. The readers who were expecting a twist thought the braggart himself was being cheated.
No one was sure they had the right ending. Some liked that they had to think about it, some didn’t.
“At least he doesn’t write down to his readers,” said one.
“Well, maybe he should,” said another.
Their personal feelings about the characters influenced their interpretation of what was shown.
Everyone loved to hate the braggart, who reminded each person of someone they knew. About half thought he was criminal enough to cheat in order to preserve his own opinions, while other thought he was too dumb and arrogant to have thought about doing so.
No one thought that that wine connoisseur simply lost —he was too genteel and modest to be anything other than an expert. For most of the discussion, he was “that poor man” trying to figure out what had “been done to him.” Everyone knew that something had.
No one remembered that this story was in first person.
This story’s narrator doesn’t like the braggart and feels sympathy for the connoisseur—his descriptions give the first impressions of the central characters. But he’s there solely as an observer and is so unobtrusive that every reader was surprised that it wasn’t in third.
I’m not sure if this means that Archer has a deft touch, or that this conceit is so well-used that it doesn’t register. But to me, it seems like a lost opportunity to be unreliable!
Our discussion about “The Wine-Taster” ended about twenty minutes earlier than usual—this story is a quick read and makes for a quick, if argumentative, discussion.
Next month’s story—“The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon—may be heavier going. Maybe I should extended our room reservation . . .
*Found in The Collected Short Stories (Archer, 1997).
** He was convicted in 2000 of perjury and perverting the course of justice in a 1987 libel case. This ruined his political career—before his arrest, he was a (or possibly the) conservative candidate for London’s mayoral election.