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.