Corked: A Memoir recalls two darkly humorous weeks in a tumultuous father-daughter relationship, replete with the author's mutually escalating insecurities: insecurity about paternal love and the inevitability of death, lover love, wine love, wine speak and insecurity about insecurity.
Traumatized by her accidental killing of an elderly man, Borel has been depressed for some years when the book begins. Trying to connect with her aging connoisseur father (and to prove she learned something from her compulsory childhood lessons in his cellar), she proposes a wine-tasting road trip in France.
She will bond with her father, she thinks, if she bonds with wine, his great passion.
The outcome is a compelling and often uncomfortable blend of love, resentment, laughter and rage. Put simply, Borel's powers of perception - of her notoriously difficult father and of her own shortcomings - are acute and unrelenting. She sees and readily confesses all, often with a particular delight in the more shocking details. For instance, her story of how, after an argument, she nearly drives the two of them headlong into a tree - intentionally, that is. Or how her new vibrator catches fire while in use.
And what isn't shocking, she can make so. Having been a hotelier, her father is extremely demanding of staff and routinely berates them to the point of tears. As if to compensate for his cruelty, Borel fears that her own complaining might result in spending "the rest of my days being fed a diet of garbage slurry and mashed-up Madagascar cockroaches, naked, while being cattle-prodded by zombie-ghosts with melting faces in bloody army attire."
Not imagery for the faint of heart, but it is teeming with energy and originality. What drives this book and makes it important is the seemingly impossible-to-maintain contrast between Borel's in-your-face bravado, her desire to shock, and the intense fragility and insecurity of depression, her desperate need for her father's attention.
The insecurities become entangled as the pair progress on their journey from Alsace to Burgundy and from the Côtes du Rhône to the Languedoc. Terrified of disappointing her father, she confesses early that she has been pretending to know about wine, and it's not hard to believe when she declares that an Alsatian riesling tastes like gasoline.
As Borel thinks less and tastes more, things begin to change. She coaxes herself to relax as she tastes a Pfaffenheim Grand Cru Steinert. "Loosening my shoulders, I took a deep breath. Then something happened. The wine, which had disappeared down my throat, reappeared in fragrance. But it was bigger than the initial flavour. It was huge." Experiencing a long, robust finish starts her on the path to wine, and then to her father.
Some of Borel's funniest writing centres on wine. Pondering her father's opinions about the subjective sensuality of wine and the controversial wine critic Robert Parker's famous 1-100 rating system, she considers a similar system for the sensual experience of sex.
"If a man dressed up in a giant periwinkle bunny costume before bedding me, I would likely rate that experience a 2 out of 100. ... But if I were a furvert, the rating would surely be much higher. According to my father, Parker was the same. The only difference is the man in the plushie outfit is an expansively flavoured, easy-seducing wine with little nuance."
It's difficult not to picture the all-powerful Parker in the bunny suit.
Borel is not always in control of her writing, however. Her extemporaneous imagistic meanderings can be distracting, even daunting. We are offered a verbal description of a theoretical pie chart representing the ingredients of her father's cackle, a to-do list for God ("Fix Africa") and a long list of preferred drinks when she can't bear any more red wine ("French fry grease. … A glass of syphilitic's urine.").
These hallucinatory flights would be more engaging if used more sparingly and more strategically. At times, it seems Borel's impulses, her insecurities and her need to shock control the text, though she clearly possesses the ability to rein them in and use them to her advantage, to our advantage. As the trip nears an end, Borel makes more of the connections she has been seeking, smoothly and satisfyingly where wine is concerned, but not surprisingly, the paternal road is rougher.
In Côte Rôtie, bonding with father, wine and winemaker finally happens over a voluptuous red blend that all agree tastes like cake. Unexpectedly, a momentous discussion of German philosophy and wine's live, subjective nature ensues. It will take the later confession of her father's unexpected secret to finally bring father and daughter to an understanding and the book to its denouement.
Some readers may shy away from Borel's openness, but this book is unique precisely because it is Borel. With the audacious rage of a neglected child and the bold sharpness of the surgeon's blade, she dissects her very human relationship with her father. Then, hearts and bodies still open and beating, she invites us in for a glass of wine around the operating table. This takes courage.
I expect that Corked is just the hard-copy beginning for Borel. I look forward to seeing what she'll offer up next. My hope: more of the same, but a little less.
Kate Parsons is a sommelier and wine writer who very recently relocated from Ottawa to Boston.