HOMETOWN BREW by Ellen Akins


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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; and—ever 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 simultaneously attracted 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.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-44795-4
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998