From a writer whose work Robert Coover has described as "subtle, wise, intricate, innovative," a rich novel of family rivalries, corporate maneuvers, and sexual intrigue--set in a small Wisconsin beer town. In the background: a small family-run brewery, Gutenbier, whose backward business practices have been miraculously transformed into an asset by the new vogue for microbreweries and designer beverages. At the center: two women whose world is...
From a writer whose work Robert Coover has described as "subtle, wise, intricate, innovative," a rich novel of family rivalries, corporate maneuvers, and sexual intrigue--set in a small Wisconsin beer town.
In the background: a small family-run brewery, Gutenbier, whose backward business practices have been miraculously transformed into an asset by the new vogue for microbreweries and designer beverages.
At the center: two women whose world is the brewery. Melissa Johnson is the heiress to Gutenbier, and Alice Reinhart works there. On her father's death, Melissa inherits the chairmanship everyone expected to go to her brother and finds herself resented by both workers and management. Alice, returning from New York and a bad marriage, takes up her job in the brewery only to discover that an indiscretion she committed at seventeen has surfaced and has made her the object of a series of seemingly innocent pranks that slowly reveal a darker intent. As these two women fight the forces arrayed against them and the novel moves toward its climax, the business, the politics--the life--of a town are compellingly portrayed.
Though the struggle between Wisconsin siblings Melissa and Frank Johnson for control of their family brewery should be at the center of this overflowing novel, a subplot about their employee Alice Reinhart, who posed at 17 for "pictures that made their way into a men's magazine," threatens from the first sentence to overwhelm the tale. Another subplot, involving the mixed legacy of the Johnsons' father (controlling even from beyond the grave), comes tantalizingly into view, but this novel is so overripe with ideas and relationships that the plot bogs down in complications. The narrative begins when Melissa's illegitimate son, Jesse, is 11 and Frank Sr. is dying after suffering a stroke at the home of one of Melissa's friends, having enjoyed a brief romance, or spasm of territorial imperative, with his son's fiance. Although it sounds in summary like soap opera, the novel hums with complex questions about the sexual and professional initiations of Melissa and Alice, the brutal humiliation of Frank Jr. by his father and the ensuing sibling struggle for control of the brewery. Akins ("Public Life") has more than one interesting tale to tell but seems to have been unable to decide which one should dominate. The result is a book with a lot of head on it: rich, murky and not quite easy to swallow.
Akins's first novel since the well-received "Public Life" (LJ 5/1/93) traces the fortunes of a small-town family of brewers. In the opening chapters, Melissa Johnson, the brewery owner's daughter, is an unwed mother in Colorado in unexplained circumstances. She returns home to Wisconsin and her father's acceptance. When her father dies, Melissa is named executor of the will, infuriating her brother. She makes an inept attempt to run the company but can't rein in her brother. Overlooking the obvious micro-brewery marketing niche, Frank pushes through development of a lite beer, with a sexist ad campaign that increases demand so much the company can't afford the higher production and payroll costs and is bought out by a large company. Symmetrical plot lines of Melissa's sexual involvement with the company lawyer and Frank's with an attractive brewery worker seem to be going somewhere, but the overly intellectualized narrative and inane business discussions drag the story down to the level of soap opera. A marginal purchase. Reba Leiding, Renssalaer Polytechnic Inst., Troy, NY
An initially compelling though finally unsatisfying fourth novel from the gifted author of "Little Woman" (1990) and "Public Life" (1993). Akins's strangely inchoate story begins as a contrast between the lives of two slightly acquainted women in the town of Rensselaer, Wisconsin. Melissa Johnson, who with her brother Frank stands to inherit their wealthy father's profitable brewery (and its popular product, "Gutenbier"), has returned home with an illegitimate baby. And Alice Reinhart, a brewery employee, is sexually harassed by two redneck co-workers and also bedeviled by the reappearance of nude photographs for which she posed as a teenager. Gradually the story broadens to portray Melissa's amorous involvement with a much older man, her late father's attorney Curtis Niemand; Frank Johnson's sympathetic handling of Alice's complaint against her tormentors, and his subsequent affair with her; andþever in the background, the character of 'Little' Martin, the novel's self-effacing good guy, who was Alice's high-school classmate (the first, in fact, to confront her with those notorious photos) and who now figures prominently in both the melodramatic climax and the (rather unconvincing) aftermath of reconciliations and affirmed relationships. Meantime, Akins does demonstrate several important strengths: She writes beautifully formed, intensely analytical sentences and paragraphs in a style not unworthy of comparison with Henry James's. She describes the brewmaking process in thoroughly convincing detail (in a manner reminiscent of Peter Gadol's descriptions of winemaking in his recent "The Long Rain"). And she skillfully explores the mixed feelings of men who are simultaneouslyattracted to Alice Reinhart and wary of intimacy with her. But the characterizations overall are vague, and the novel is hamstrung by what appear to be its own mixed motives: to examine the sources and nature of sexual harassment in the workplace and to offer a realistic contemporary romance about wounded people helping one another heal. It piques but doesn't hold your attention. Akins has done and can do much better.
Ellen Akins is the author of three earlier novels, Public Life, Home Movie, and Little Woman, and a collection of short stories, World Like a Knife. She has been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Whiting Writer's Award. She lives in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.