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Saturday, February 08, 2020

WWI Underground City Novel Not As Immersive As Promised

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Rosalyn Acosta doesn't care for France or its famous bubbly, yet here she is on her way to the country's Champagne region on a buying trip for her boss' winery.  Anyone would be envious of such a trip.  For Rosalyn, however, it's a painful reminder of her honeymoon in Paris, a celebration of a marriage that ended too soon, leaving her paralyzed with grief.  And debt.  Hence, her need to bring in some lucrative French accounts.

A chance conversation on the plane with her vivacious Australian seatmate piques Rosalyn's interest in a little-known fact about Champagne's tumultuous history.  During World War I, as bombs pelted the small town of Reims, France, its beleaguered citizens—mostly women and children—hid in the tunnels beneath the village's famous champagne houses.  In this underground city, the resilient occupants ran shops, a school, and even continued to harvest and store champagne.  As Rosalyn begins reading old letters describing wartime Reims from a young French soldier to his Australian pen pal, a marraine de guerre, she becomes so immersed in their story that she must know how it ends.  Suddenly, the trip Rosalyn has been dreading becomes something much, much more intriguing.

While Rosalyn gets acquainted with Champagne and researches its fascinating history, she finds herself rising out of the ashes of grief, finding herself again, and experiencing hope for the first time since her husband died.  Will she find all the answers she seeks in France?  

I love me a dual-timeline novel, especially one that's based on an intriguing historical detail like the underground WWI city in Champagne.  Throw in some old letters, a family mystery that will require a genealogical treasure hunt and you've pretty much caught me hook, line, and sinker.  Which means I should have absolutely adored The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell.   Despite the fact that it boasts a blend of elements I find particularly appealing, this novel turned out to be just an okay read for me.  Why?  As happens often in dual-timeline novels, I became more interested in the past storyline than the present and The Vineyards of Champagne spends most of its time in the latter.  Rosalyn drove me a little crazy with her self-absorbed whining.  I much preferred keeping company with the besieged folks of Reims.  It's them and their lifestyle I wanted to know more about.  Since I know little of France and nothing at all about champagne, I found these topics interesting.  Overall, though, The Vineyards of Champagne just seems to go on forever without really immersing the reader in the most interesting part of its premise—the underground WWI city of Reims.  In the end, then, I liked this novel well enough, just not as much as I wanted to.  It's interesting in a lot of ways, but its focus isn't where I wanted it to be if that makes sense.  

(Readalikes:  Hm, nothing's really coming to mind.  You?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

or brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, blood/gore, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Vineyards of Champagne from the generous folks at Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!
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