And Then There Was Her by Tagan Shepard is a story about someone who is in the wrong place, with the wrong person, and the journey she takes to find who she is and what she needs. It is told almost entirely from the perspective of Madison Jones, a twenty-eight-year-old ceramic artist.
Madison Jones is stuck. She works several jobs, which leaves her little energy to pursue her art. Her ceramic pieces are good, but she knows they could be exemplary if she unlocks her potential. Her girlfriend Kacey just appeared on the television show Top Chef and, while her notoriety leads to many job offers, Madison’s hope to officially settle down with her seems farther away than ever.
When Kacey is offered a job in Oregon, far away from the city, Madison goes with her because that’s what supportive girlfriends do. She doesn’t anticipate that the quiet, sprawling vineyards of Minerva Hills Winery will call to her muse and soothe the pain she’s been trying to run from.
The owner of the winery, CS Freeburn, is prickly, standoffish and just as passionate about making wine as Madison is about her art. When the picturesque winery and its owner coax a new creativity and sense of self from Madison, it confuses her. She believed she was perfectly happy, but how can that be true when the longer she stays and the more time she spends with CS the more it feels like home?
Cheating can be a sensitive topic but we don’t have to contest with that here. Madison and Kacey break-up before any exploration of a relationship with CS begins.
A word that jumps into my history-nerd brain when thinking about Madison’s journey is pyrite, otherwise known as fool’s gold. There are famous stories of early settlements in America that did not fare well, sometimes disappearing entirely. In one famous example, Jamestown, the settlers discovered what they believed to be gold. They were so intent on mining it and shipping tons of it back to England that they ignored tasks that would have been helpful to their survival. Unfortunately, what they had really found was pyrite. Madison Jones has similarly allowed herself to be fooled. She has shades of happiness in her current life and is trying very hard to convince herself that this is enough. She’s hiding from pain and, in her desire to escape it, she clutches what she believes to be precious but isn’t. This is entirely human. People fool themselves all the time.
Madison’s loyalty, need to create, and longing to truly share her life with someone are central to her personality. They also make her a character who is empathetic and easy to connect with. Her journey feels like a long peaceful walk in a lonely wood. As a reader, you find as she finds and you see the lights of home on the horizon when she does. Because the book is mostly told by Madison, CS doesn’t come to life quite as strongly. I was okay with this, however, because CS’s honesty and straightforwardness shone through.
The Writing Style
The readability of the book amazed me. I opened the book and the next thing I knew I was on chapter twelve. Shepard keeps her characters in the present. Madison’s inner thoughts and memories are all directly connected to what’s happening right in front of her. It can be easy for writers to lose the plot (and sometimes the reader’s attention) by using too much inner dialogue and exposition. However, here, every glimpse into Madison’s thoughts feels relevant and meaningful.
Transformation is my favorite type of story, probably because there is something inherently romantic about two people who challenge one another’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them.
This book plucked the strings of my romantic side on multiple occasions. So much so that the requisite “first time between the leads” sex scene made me give an audible, happy sigh. It felt like a capturing of perfection. There are many moments in the book when emotion is captured vividly and you cannot help but feel touched.
Watch any Hallmark holiday movie and by ten minutes in, you usually hate the main character’s boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancée. This is by design. After all, the real story is how the lead falls in love with someone else. Therefore, the person they are currently with has to be painted as a self-centered, horrible human being.
Madison’s girlfriend exemplifies this. However, she’s so awful that there’s a blaring “isn’t she the worst” subtext in the background of her scenes. It began to impact my otherwise blissful enjoyment. I found myself purposefully ignoring her, hoping she would go away. Spoilers: she does.
I highly recommend this book to the romantics out there and even the aspiring romantics who just need a little encouragement. There is at least one scene that I intend to reread again and again as I snuggle with my wife on a rainy morning.
Excerpt from And Then There Was Her by Tagan Shepard
“These are pinot noir. By the time we harvest, the skins will be the darkest purple you’ve ever seen. Almost black.”
There was a far-off misty look in CS’s eyes. Like she was talking about a lover she would never stop aching for. The person Madison found intimidating, cold and unfriendly was nowhere to be seen today. Not on a day when harvest was so near and she could talk about her grapes. It was charming in a misanthropic kind of way. Madison smiled despite herself.
CS snapped out of her reverie quickly, moving past Madison down the row. She slowed, turning her head to allow Madison to catch up. They walked side by side, not looking at each other but wrapped again in companionable silence. Madison’s fingers itched to move her hands, so she snatched a sprig of lavender from her back pocket and spun it between her fingers. When she looked up she realized they’d arrived at the main building and CS turned to her, hands deep in her pockets and avoiding Madison’s gaze.
“Have you taken a winery tour yet?”
The truth seemed like an insult, but she had no choice but to tell it. “No, I haven’t.”
“Seriously? People pay a lot of money to stay here and do tours. You’ve lived here two months now and you haven’t?”
Madison shrugged, but she took a step forward. “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
CS gestured with a jerk of her head down a path leading behind the building and started to walk that way herself. “I’ll give you a special tour. Even include a barrel tasting.”
Madison held her place for exactly three seconds before hurrying to catch up with CS.
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