"The Winemaker's Wife" by Kristin Harmel; Gallery Books (400 pages, $28)
I have to admit that when I think of Champagne, I don't usually think of World War II.
But Kristin Harmel's engrossing new historical novel, "The Winemaker's Wife," focuses on that war's impact on the region of France famed for its sublime sparkling wine.
Harmel, who lives in Orlando, Fla., employed a nearby setting for her last two novels, "The Sweetness of Forgetting" and "The Room on Rue Amelie": Both take place largely in Paris during World War II. "The Winemaker's Wife" moves northeast to the area around the city of Reims, in the Champagne region - much closer to the French border with Germany.
The novel has two story lines, one taking place during the war and the other in the present, with their connections gradually revealed.
The war chapters begin in the spring of 1940, as the German invasion of France begins, at Maison Chauveau, a winery near Reims. In the same family for centuries, the place is owned by Michel Chauveau, a hardworking, practical and charming fellow. His much younger wife, Ines, is "a skinny, gorgeous whirlwind." Naive and impetuous, she's in a state of denial about the seriousness of the war, pouting about her husband's neglect while he works overtime to keep the family business functioning with dwindling resources.
Michel's right-hand man is his chef de cave, or cellarmaster, Theo Laurent, a skilled winemaker. Just as indispensable is Theo's wife, Celine, who grew up on a vineyard in Burgundy and knows winemaking almost as well as Michel and Theo do.
Ines thinks (correctly) that Celine doesn't take her seriously, and she feels isolated at the winery. Fortunately, Ines' best friend since childhood lives in Reims with her husband. Edith and Edouard Thierry run a brasserie there, and Ines is always welcome to visit. Until, that is, the Germans occupy the city. Nazis fill the restaurant, and Ines can't understand why Edith treats her coldly.
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Back at Maison Chauveau, the situation worsens. The Nazis have a voracious thirst for Champagne, requisitioning hundreds of thousands of bottles at a time - and, of course, not paying for them. All the winemakers are losing money and struggling to find enough workers to operate.
Their resistance to the occupiers starts small, when they fill the Nazi requisitions with inferior cuvees packaged with dirty bottles and corks. That resistance grows into La Resistance, and it turns out all those labyrinthine caves carved into the chalk for aging and storing wines can be useful for hiding things, like weapons and Resistance fighters and Jewish refugees. The danger level rises, at Maison Chauveau in particular because Celine is half-Jewish.
The present-day story line revolves around Liv Kent, a 40-year-old New Yorker. Her husband has just dumped her for his much younger assistant, Anemone, whom Liv describes as "a millennial vegan whose hippie parents named her after a species of jellyfish." (Her husband's defense is that anemones are actually sea polyps.)
Before she can get too depressed, though, Liv's eccentric Grandmother Edith arrives with first-class tickets to Paris for the two of them. That's Edith as in Edith Thierry, long ago the best friend of Ines Chauveau, although Liv has no idea of that history.
They no sooner arrive in Paris than Edith whisks Liv off to Reims. At age 99, Edith clearly wants to unburden herself about something, but it's a story she fears telling. That leaves Liv passing the time with Edith's handsome young lawyer, Julien Cohn. Liv likes everything about him except his wedding ring, but she's frustrated by Edith's odd behavior. The story will out, though, a suspenseful tale of betrayals personal and political, and of courage and sacrifice.
Maison Chauveau is fictional, but other real-life Champagne houses and people associated with them appear in the book, along with lots of information about the methode champenoise. The region was in fact a center for resistance to the Nazis during the war. As Harmel points out in her author's note, the second-rate wines in dirty bottles sent to the Germans are historical fact. She discovered that "Count Robert-Jean de Vogue, the managing director of the storied Moet & Chandon during the war, was also the leader of the Resistance movement in this area of France," arrested by the Nazis and surviving their labor camps.
Harmel is a stickler for more recent details as well. Between the printing of the book's galley a few months back and its final copy, she added a mention of the April fire at Notre Dame de Paris when Liv talks about that landmark.
That kind of dedication makes me want to pop a cork and raise a glass. A votre sante!
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