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Review: The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh

on November 16, 2020

The Champagne War
Fiona McIntosh
Penguin Random House AUS
2020, 413p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

‘Make these little vines count. Love them as I love you.’

In the summer of 1914, vigneron Jerome Mea heads off to war, certain he’ll be home by Christmas. His new bride Sophie Delancré, a fifth generation champenoise, is determined to ensure the forthcoming vintages will be testament to their love and the power of the people of Épernay, especially its strong women who have elevated champagne to favourite beverage of the rich and royal worldwide. But as the years drag on, authorities advise that Jerome is missing, considered dead.

When poison gas is first used in Belgium by the Germans, British chemist Charles Nash jumps to enlist, refusing to be part of the scientific team that retaliates. A brilliant marksman, Charlie is seen by his men as a hero, but soon comes to feel that he’d rather die himself than take another life. When he is injured, he is brought to the champagne cellars in Reims, where Sophie has set up an underground hospital, and later to her mansion house in Épernay, now a retreat for the wounded.

As Sophie struggles with strong feelings for her patient, she also battles to procure the sugar she needs for her 1918 vintage and attracts sinister advances from her brother-in-law. However, nothing can prepare her for the ultimate battle of the heart, when Jerome’s bloodstained jacket and identification papers are found in Belgium, and her hopes of ever seeing her husband alive again are reignited.

From the killing fields of Ypres to the sun-kissed vineyards of southern France, The Champagne War is a heart-stopping adventure about the true power of love and hope to light the way during war.

This is a meticulously researched novel that takes the reader deep into the vineyards of France, during WWI. Sophie is the only remaining member of her family – for five generations they have made champagne. She carries on the tradition with love and care, always looking for ways to improve the vintage. A meeting with Louis Méa, who offers a reluctant Sophie a partnership in business and life leads to his younger brother Jerome, who captures Sophie’s heart from first glance. The two families are joined, but not in the way Louis wanted, although the whole area rejoices in their marriage. Unfortunately the declaration of war interrupts the young lovers almost immediately and Jerome signs up and is then reported as missing, feared dead.

Sophie is determined to have a definitive answer about her husband and she’s willing to do almost anything to get it, even play her brother-in-law’s games. She needs to know. She doesn’t feel like Jerome is dead and their love was so strong, she thinks she’d feel it if he were. She continues to hound the Red Cross for information of him, even as Louis uses her grief and determination to manipulate her. When Sophie is out of sugar to make the vintage she wants to bottle more than any other, she may be forced to rely on Louis after all, despite what it will cost her. Perhaps the intervention of Captain Charlie Nash, a British chemist recuperating from war injuries at Sophie’s country family home, can offer a solution.

I have read a lot more books centred around WWII than I have around WWI and so this contained elements in the story that I haven’t read before. I really enjoyed Sophie as a character – she’s wealthy and very privileged but she’s also down to earth and practical and is willing to do anything to help with causes in the war. She donates her time, her home, her assets to helping the wounded and protecting the town. For a large portion of this, parts of the town she lives in dwell underground and they have a whole community there, including a school for the children. Although this does have health complications for some, it’s better than the alternative and it gives them a place to retreat from the German bombing that has destroyed large parts of the town.

Sophie loses her husband to war – he signs up immediately and is then reported missing, believed dead after a chemical gas attack. For years, she searches for proof of his death, refusing to accept it until she knows for sure, even though there will be thousands of families who never receive that proof they are searching for. Sophie loves Jerome, her husband but she does find herself growing closer to Captain Nash and wondering what she truly wants. Sophie is still a young woman, it’s not too hard to understand that she might want a future with someone else, if her husband truly is lost to her. Louis, her brother-in-law has been trying to use the situation to his advantage. He’s desperate to get her to marry him and Sophie is equally desperate to avoid such a fate. Although I feel she gives Louis far too much credit as a reasonable person – the vibe I got was rotten to the core, but she seemed determined to believed that he was capable of being a reasonable and good human being, even after everything he tried to do to her, especially not allowing her to purchase the sugar he was able to obtain and only offering it to her if she would agree to marry him.

If you enjoy champagne then I think you’ll appreciate the amount of information this book provides on the intricate process of making it. I don’t drink but the process was fascinating to read about and Sophie’s dedication to her craft as well as creating a special vintage for her husband, was admirable. The only thing I might’ve liked was a bit more actual showing of Sophie and Jerome, we didn’t really get a lot of them as a couple before he went off to war. Although I appreciated Sophie’s determination to find him and know for sure, a large portion of the book was devoted to her interactions with Captain Nash and then her internal struggle over having feelings for two men: the one right in front of her and the one who might never come home. I needed a bit more Jerome in the beginning!

An engrossing novel of a traumatic time in history and the ways in which the human strength of spirit was able to persevere. I enjoyed this.

8/10

Book #227 of 2020

The Champagne War is book #84 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020


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