The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell is my 5th. book for the European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader. It covers the country of 'France'.
Rosalyn Acosta is currently working for the wine industry in the Napa Valley in California. It's not her dream job but when her adored husband, Dash, died two years ago he left her with debts and no job to help pay them off. Friend of the family, Hugh, employs her out of the goodness of his heart but now wants her to travel to the Champagne region of France to scout out new varieties of Champagne for him to sell. But, to put it bluntly, she doesn't want to go. France holds too many memories of her blissful honeymoon with Dash and Rosalyn has become a bit of a hermit into the bargain, grieving non-stop for her adored husband. And to add insult to injury... she really doesn't like Champagne that much.
Hugh gets his way and Rosalyn is off to France. On the plane she meets Emma, an Australian woman, and they get talking. Emma has some letters from World War One that she wants to investigate. They were written to her Australian aunt by a young French soldier, somewhat in the style of them being pen pals. Sensing something in Rosalyn she asks her if she would like to take on the task of looking into them as Emma has broken her leg and isn't very mobile at the moment. Rosalyn feels unable to it take on but mistakenly takes one of the letters after reading it on the plane. Reading it properly later she becomes fascinated and isn't exactly unhappy when Emma arrives at the gite complex to visit her, bringing the rest of the letters. A whole new world of history opens up to her when she begins to read them, that of the people of Reims hiding from German bombs and snipers in the Champagne caves under the city during WW1. Rosalyn has no idea of course that the friends she's making as a result of both this trip to France, and of these letters, will begin the healing process she so badly needs.
I first read about this book on Marg's blog, here. I liked the sound of a book about the history of a region you don't often read about. And here I must confess that I didn't know where the Champagne region was. I had some vague idea that it was somewhere in the south near Provence. Nope. It's actually in North Eastern France! It has a border with Belgium and is nextdoor to Alsace-Lorraine. The city of Reims which features in this book is halfway between Paris and the Belgian border. No wonder it had such an awful time during WW1. I didn't know about that either.
There are two story-lines in this book. The main one is that of Rosalyn's unwilling trip to France and the people she meets who become friends. The secondary time-line is told via the letters written by the French soldier, Émile, to Doris in Australia, plus we learn a lot more about that situation as Rosalyn, Blondine and Emma begin their search. I thought the book was a joy in that heartwarming manner that depicts hope and healing in the face of great grief. Rosalyn finds that France weaves a magic spell on her although the effect is not immediate. I loved reading about French meals and traditions in the area and the way in which Champagne is made differently to wine... I didn't know that either. It seems I learnt quite a lot from this delightful book. Will definitely read more by Juliet Blackwell.