Lisa Mattson is a well-known Sonoma PR exec who came up with a clever idea for a novel: a roman à clef about her progression of ex-lovers and her simultaneous growing passion for fine wines and involvement in the wine business, enhanced with signature tunes that float up a relationship memory of each passing dude. The result is Exes in My iPod: A Playlist of the Men Who Rocked Me to Wine Country, and, while not exactly a bodice-ripper, there is enough sex cohabiting with wine here to suggest as a sub-title "13 Shades of Hearty Burgundy."
Mattson's heroine is Harley Aberle, who we meet just after she’s escaped from the Midwest. Harley has lived a trailer-park youth and now as a young blonde babe in South Florida wants to flex her wings without over-exposing a chest that she thinks is as flat as her native Kansas. The boy she escapes from Kansas with is named Chris, but both life and Harley soon find him deficient in ambition. (His song is the Dead’s "Box of Rain," and if you click it while reading the e-book format, the iTunes version pops on.) Harley wants a better life while working as a waitress and — yes — bartender to put herself through college, while Chris is content to re-live the life they just escaped, only at a sunnier address.
And so soon we are off on a tale of 12 gorgeous but ultimately flawed men, a Decameron of one-chapter-stands who find novel ways to bed Harley. (I promised myself: "No word plays about motorcycles.") Each of the delectable dozen serves as a predictable checkmark for another category of near-misters — secretly married man, mama’s boy, man with an AC/DC menu, philanderer — to educate Harley and to add another melody to her playlist. (We are reminded of Elaine in the Seinfeld episode anguishing over a boyfriend who identifies with Desperado while leaving Elaine tuneless.)
Somewhere along this boulevard of bronzed bodies and tearful tunes, Harley takes a college wine ed class and becomes drawn deeper and deeper into a romance with wine that ultimately leads her to California. Surprisingly, her career as a wine marketer is devoid of any speed bumps, while her marriage to Dude number 11 is as blah as a glass of white zinfandel when she is dying for the depth and complexity of a Colgin cab. The problem for Harley is that she drinks straight from the bottle when she should first decant. So, will Man number 13 turn out to be Mr. Right, and will Harley even be able to recognize him before her iPod becomes overloaded or — worse — technologically obsolete?
Mattson — who has been an enjoyable informational source for some of my articles the past few years — is a good writer and tells a good tale. We know where Harley is headed, but Mattson is still able to convince us to take the ride with her. She draws accurate portraits of her men and their growing flaws, includes enough sex in each chapter to keep us breathing heavily if not actually panting, and offers a good glimpse of the wine industry for those on the outside.
That said, Mattson is still more of a journalist than a novelist. We are looking back through the eyes of Harley today, and Mattson is obsessed with constantly updating us on what existed then and what exists now and the ties between them (with reference links) — sort of like the hovering sommelier who babbles on about the provenance of a wine when you want her to just pour the damn thing. Mattson too often tells us what Harley is feeling rather than letting us feel it with her.
Similarly, she can’t help herself — as yet another wine is being poured at an emotional moment with one of her men — from giving us a one-sentence tutorial about the grape, the wine, or the public perceptions of them. It’s not so much a wink at her wine-savvy readers as it is a lusty leer.
Still, Mattson has made good on her promise to deliver an interesting tale of wine, sex, and pop music as "chick lit." It will doubtless leave many of the thousands of women in the wine business who are still in their early '30s — as Harley is when we leave her — wondering how they missed the merry-go-round and why their own playlists are as flat as Harley’s frontage.
The Exes in My iPod: A Playlist of the Men Who Rocked Me to Wine Country is available in e-book format for $4.99 on iPod, iTunes, Amazon, and elsewhere. And through Dec. 31, e-books are available for $3.99.The print edition is $13.99. More at www.exesinmyipod.com/purchase.