Monday, June 14, 2021

Juliet Blackwell - The Vineyards of Champagne

Deep within the labyrinth of caves that lie below the lush, rolling vineyards of the Champagne region, an underground city of women and children hums with life. Forced to take shelter from the unrelenting onslaught of German shellfire above, the bravest among them venture out to pluck sweet grapes for the harvest. But wine is not the only secret preserved in the cool, dark cellars...
In present day, Rosalyn travels to Champagne to select vintages for her Napa-based employer. Rosalyn doesn't much care for champagne--or France, for that matter. Since the untimely death of her young husband, Rosalyn finds it a challenge to enjoy anything at all. But as she reads through a precious cache of WWI letters and retraces the lives lived in the limestone tunnels, Rosalyn will unravel a mystery hidden for decades...and find a way to savor her own life again, inspired by the hope and defiance of the women who toiled to bring in the grape harvest during the war.

Comment: I got interested in this book for the possibilities it seemed to imply in how the main character would change her life upon traveling to an area of France where so much happened during WWI. For me, this immediately read as "new romance" lol and besides I was intrigued by the fact there would be mention of WWI events, when so much in fiction tends to focus on WWII instead.

In this book we meet sales rep Rosalyn, as she reluctantly travels to France, to visit the region of Champagne so she can promote her boss' small wine company and check if the French producers want representation in the US. She is not in the best frame of mind, still mourning the death of her husband, but she feels she owes her boss for he has been a friend too. On the plane she meets Emma, someone also in the wine business and while talking, Emma shares some letters from the WWI era, for she discovered she might be related to someone who was in Reims at that time. To pass the time, Rosalyn reads one letter and is intrigued but soon put that aside as they arrive and part ways. However, they realize their paths connect again when other people they discover they have in common start sharing their knowledge of how the harvest was done during the war. Could it be that the things Rosalyn learns in France will help her cope with the loss she had in the US?

This was certainly an intriguing book to read but I have to confess it felt as if too many details were trying to have center stage. I think I'd have preferred the story to focus on Rosalyn now or on the WWI events because the way this was played, our attention is divided too long and neither element has the impact it could. Well, in my opinion.

I prefered the contemporary story, of how Rosalyn is supposed to learn a lesson, to try to be happy again. I think it as realistic to allow her to mourn and feel sad for quite a long part of the book, after all people don't just change their way of acting from one day to the other. However, at the same time, it did feel as if it took too long for the author to set things up in a way the reader would want to carry on reading. There were some moments in the story it felt the same things, the same emotions were being forced on Rosalyn and on us with her, so there was some dragging.

As one could expect, though, the romantic part of this book is precisely how Rosalyn learns to move on, to want to do it for real, by the people she meets, the lessons she learns from what happened in the past and, of course, the man she comes to care about. I liked Rosalyn and how she didn't jump from one state of mind/heart to the next too quickly...but in a book which is partially labeled romance, I expected some more page time on that too. I also liked he friendships she makes and how all the combined new things in her life make her want to have new goals. A big part of the story is about how she dealt and is dealing with mourning...this was realistically done I guess, but the ration with the "healing" part didn't feel as balanced as it could.

There's also the content related to the WWI events and how people back then still did the harvest to produce champagne while the fights happened. I think the letters, of which we have some complete ones included, and the chapters from a character's POV of that era help us have a better understanding of the efforts made and the losses those people suffered but I didn't feel these chapters/elements were as smoothly introduced in the plot as they could. It did feel there was a barrier between what was in the past and what is in the present plot. Due to this, for me, the events from the past didn't feel as sentimental as I thought they would be or as the author might have intended.

Obviously, there is quite a good amount of wine and champagne making content inserted in the plot. It was interesting to learn a few things (even the historical facts used in the past chapters) about this but I admit I still don't feel the need to run and taste French champagne lol. I think it shows the author has been there and probably saw some processes (as shared by her in a note at the end of the book) and it certainly added more impact to the character's actions and why they still do something they consider part of the tradition of that area.

The truth is I was rooting for Rosalyn and her achieving closure on her past life so she could embrace the present. It was also well thought how this part of the story related to the letters from the WWI time. All in all, this was a good enough read but a few details could have been edited differently. 
Grade: 7/10

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