Jacob Winegarden is a professor of theoretical physics, specialising in thought experimentation, and shielded from commerical reality by working in academia. While his department’s offices were being refurbished, Winegarden was temporarily relocated to a cramped space above a Cats Protection League centre where a black cat adopted him and became a running joke amongst faculty staff and students. Winegarden is agnostic but was brought up in the Jewish tradition and marries a Jewish woman, Miriam. Their only son, Joshua, is stillborn.
The story opens with Winegarden in middle age and moves back to his childhood and forward to old age in a nursing home. It explores Winegarden’s attitude towards his Jewish religion, the persistence of his love for Miriam and his reluctance to shut down options by making a decision.
Winegarden’s wedding day was upset by an outburst from his father so, although the day ended happily, it was also marred. One of the most successful periods of his working life was marred by the serious illness of his colleague’s daughter. The delight and anticipation in Miriam’s pregnancy gives way to grief as his son is stillborn. This nearly breaks his marriage. Winegarden wants to talk but his wife doesn’t. Her grief is internalised, finding eventual solace in religion, shutting off from her husband.
These ambivalences allow Anthony Ferner to explore ironies using a sense of subversiveness to show how Winegarden copes with the life he finds himself in. Miriam is his anchor, pulling him out of his head to engage with daily life, while friends prefer to engage on an intellectual level. It is in nearing the end of his own life, Winegarden is pushed to confront his grief for Jacob and the life that could have been.
Winegarden and Miriam are engaging characters and the mix of seriousness and humour make “Winegarden” a compelling, thought-provoking read. Despite his intellectual, abstract thought patterns and career Winegarden’s anxieties make him human. He naturally over-analyses and over-things everything but the wry humour brings him to life.