Review: The French House by Helen Fripp

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The vineyards stretched away in every direction as he plucked a perfect red grape, sparkling with dew. “Marry me,” he’d said. “We’ll run these vineyards together.” But now he is gone. There is no one to share the taste of the first fruit of the harvest. And her troubles are hers alone…

In sleepy little Reims, France, grieving Nicole Clicquot watches her daughter play amongst the vines under the golden sun and makes a promise to herself. Her gossiping neighbours insist that the rolling fields of chalk soil are no place for a woman, but she is determined to make a success of the winery. It’s the only chance she has to keep a roof over her head and provide a future for her little girl.

But as the seasons change, bringing a spoiled harvest and bitter grapes, the vineyards are on the brink of collapse. Without her husband’s oldest friend, travelling merchant Louis, she’d truly be lost. No one else would stay up all night to help count endless rows of green bottles deep in the cellars, or spread word far and wide that Nicole makes the finest champagne he’s ever tasted. One magical night, as a shooting star illuminates their way under a velvet sky, Nicole gazes up at his warm smile and wonders if perhaps she doesn’t need to be quite so alone…

But when Louis shrinks from her touch after returning from a long trip abroad, Nicole fears something is terribly wrong. And as an old secret about her husband – that only Louis knew – spreads from the cobbled village streets all the way to the Paris salons, her heart and fragile reputation are shattered. Was she wrong to put her trust in another man? And with Napoleon’s wars looming on the horizon, can she find a way to save her vineyards, and her daughter, from ruin?

Source: Purchase, NetGalley, and Bookouture Rating: 5 stars

As a young girl with her whole life ahead of her, the headstrong Nicole Clicquot agrees to marry the man of her dreams.  With the world at their feet and beautiful and bountiful vineyards as their future, there is nothing the Clicquot’s cannot accomplish.  Unfortunately, Fate always has her hand in the lives of mere mortals and this time, she takes Nicole’s husband far too soon.  With a small child and employees to care for, Nicole decides, against all the odds and conventions of her time and place, she will run the vineyards and make them the success she and her beloved once dreamed they could be.

Though Nicole knows the mechanics of running a vineyard, her job is made doubly hard given the fact she is a woman.  In her time and place, single, even widowed women, simply don’t own and run a successful business.  At nearly every turn, Nicole is faced with yet another man hellbent on hindering her success.  What’s more, the men willing to work with her either have to grudgingly admit to her knowledge and expertise and work with her as well as becoming to next focus of the town’s gossip. 

Over the years, Nicole, her vineyards, and her employees see hundreds of ups and downs, not the least of which is Napoleon’s march across Europe.  With each new victory, Napoleon shuts down more and more of Europe making is nearly impossible and certainly illegal to export goods.  On more than one occasion, Nicole risks her own life and the lives of some of her dearest friends in order to get her wares to the countries clamoring for them.  Sometimes, the deliveries go according to plan and others are epic disasters.  The disasters threaten the very existence of Nicole’s livelihood and she will do whatever she must to ensure its existence.

The Bottom Line:  This was a long, saga-esque read that I enjoyed every minute and every page of.  I am always a fan of strong women who are far, far ahead of their time and place.  In Nicole’s case, she doesn’t bow to the whims of others, but expects others to come around to her way of thinking.  Nicole expects those who are with her to work as she does, defy convention as she does, and reap the benefits of their hard work and determination.  What I found particularly interesting about this read is the descriptions of the vineyards and the lengths Nicole is willing to go to in order to ensure her continued success.  Make no mistake, this isn’t a terribly happy read, but it is one of knowledge, determination, sheer stubbornness, and cleverness beyond anyone’s reckoning.  Nicole defies all the odds and comes out all the better for it in the end.

P.S. I also found this book under the alternate title The Champagne Widow

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