A somewhat entertaining but mostly predictable story; Champagne fans and readers who can’t get enough WWII fiction will...

THE WINEMAKER'S WIFE

Harmel (The Room on Rue Amélie, 2018, etc.) returns with another historical novel set in France during World War II.

This novel alternates between 1940 at the Chauveau Champagne winery near Reims as the German occupation begins and the present day in the same area, where recently divorced Liv Kent’s 99-year-old grandmother, Edith, has brought her so that Edith can attend to some “business.” Gradually Liv begins to understand they are in Reims so she can learn what happened in 1940 that changed the futures of her grandparents, their friends, and the Chauveau winery. She discerns this in part from the new man in her life, Julien, grandson and partner of Edith’s longtime lawyer. Harmel weaves in real historical figures such as Otto Klaebisch, the “weinführer” in Champagne during the war, and Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé, Resistance leader and head of Moët & Chandon. The story of fictional Resistance member and Champagne proprietor Michel Chauveau may be realistic, but parts of the story about his young wife, Inès, are less convincing. The Chauveaus employ winemaker Theo Laurent, whose wife Céline’s family is Jewish. While Inès’ naïve insistence that Céline’s family is far from danger is somewhat understandable—many people were unable to believe what was happening at the time—it doesn’t square with her recollection of her WWI veteran father insisting “You can never trust the Huns!” Inès’ vacillating sympathies might reflect her youth, but they set up a chain of events that leads to dramatic changes in her life, which in turn set up the dramatic unveiling of Edith’s secrets in the modern section of the book. All of which requires suspension of disbelief. Liv’s love interest, while sudden, is somewhat more believable, as is Edith’s reluctance to tell Liv the family history. Even in those sections, Harmel resorts to formulaic moments, such as a mix-up about whether Julien is married and a scene where a character is welcomed to heaven with forgiving words from other characters.

A somewhat entertaining but mostly predictable story; Champagne fans and readers who can’t get enough WWII fiction will probably still enjoy it.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9821-1229-5

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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