Midnight Champagne
by A. Manette Ansay
(Morrow, $24, PG) ISBN 0-688-15244-9
****
As I was reading Midnight Champagne, comparisons to music kept coming to mind. At first I thought the novel reminded me of a concerto for chamber orchestra with distinct voices blending together within a structured form. Then I decided it was more like a jazz jam in which each instrument takes a solo turn. I never decided which was correct, but I do know that when a story makes me hear music it is a memorable read.

Midnight Champagne's unusual structure may alienate some readers. There is no designated main character. All of the action takes place during one evening at the snowy Valentine's Day wedding ceremony and reception of April Liesgang and Caleb Shannon. Although it is April and Caleb's event, they figure into the narrative only peripherally. Like an ambitious director with a camera, the story pans back and forth among wedding guests. This technique could make the story seem too loose and unfocused. But because the action of the novel is contained within one location and one evening, the lack of definite hero or heroine does not detract from its effectiveness.

April and Caleb's sudden marriage after only three months of dating has raised many eyebrows in April's Wisconsin hometown. April's father is upset that she is forgoing a church wedding to marry at the infamous Great Lakes Chapel and Hideaway Lodge, a former whorehouse with a shady reputation. Her mother is exasperated with her undemonstrative husband and two younger children who always manage to make a scene in public. Her Aunt Libby is hurt that her ex-husband has shown up with his young, pregnant bride. Younger brother Stanley hates being around relatives who constantly remind him that he hasn't gone through puberty yet. Her Grandmother Hilda, for reasons that she won't tell anyone, is sure that someone will die before the night is over.

As these family dynamics boil and simmer under the pressure cooker of a wedding, the snow keeps falling, and two surprise guests arrive: April's ex-boyfriend Barney and a stranger staying in the Lodge who has just had a fight with his wife. These two dissimilar individuals meet and set off a chain of events that act like a lit fuse.

A. Manette Ansay has been heralded by the unconventional Utne Reader magazine as one of the top ten "new faces of fiction." She definitely has the magic touch -- that mystical ability to weave together words that are not necessarily original or unusual into something fresh and new. She utilizes numerous points of view and anchors them with the prefacing quote by Chekhov: "If you fear loneliness, then marriage is not for you." The friends and family attending April and Caleb's wedding each bring their own diverse experiences of marriage. The occasion causes the guests to reflect on their own personal definitions of love. A few even use it as a turning point to make decisions about their future. This results in scenes that are in turn poignant, wry, shocking, funny and eerie.

Although the overall tone of the novel is fairly somber, the ending leaves the reader with a sense of hope. April and Caleb are just starting out, and they have a lot to learn, but perhaps their match is a good one that can survive the disappointments and loneliness that are an inevitable part of even the best marriage.

Midnight Champagne will foster some very interesting reading group discussions. If you are a romance reader who is looking for something a bit more literary, I highly recommend this thought-provoking novel.

--Susan Scribner


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