The French House by Helen Fripp
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?
Fans of Chocolat, Carnegie’s Maid, Dinah Jeffries and anyone longing to sip champagne under the stars will adore this stunning historical read, inspired by the true story of how Nicole Clicquot blazed her own path to build the world’s greatest champagne house: Veuve Clicquot.
Unlike most ladies in nineteenth century France, Nicole was a wild-child tom-boy who refused to marry for society but married François Clicquot for love, and to live her life her own way. Theirs was a love that grew like the vineyards they tended together, but also one fraught with depression and loss, leaving her alone in a world where women were not welcome.
The vineyards, terroir and Champagne making process are all easily visualised in this book, along with the French customs of the era. There are many who want her to fail, so knowing who to trust and who would sell out to her rivals is never easy, but her stubborn refusal to give in was what drove her on, even in the darkest of days. From dependable Xavier, to all-seeing Natasha, loyal Louis, exotic Thérésa and mysterious Alexei, we get passion, respect and deception, as well as a colourful cast of characters who intrigued and entertained me as we travelled through the French Revolution, 19thcentury Parisian society and Napoleon’s war with Russia.
This imagined story of a real-life remarkable woman is a fascinating read, as fate, mother nature, family feuds and war all have their part to play as the fortunes of Nicole Clicquot and her vineyard, ride high on success one minute and are plunged into disaster the next. I was with her every step of the way, from her most unladylike daring adventures in horse drawn carriages from Reims, to Paris, to Amsterdam, willing her to find the happiness and success that she deserved. Desperately wanting her to gain the respect from the men who were her rivals, and to prove to herself as much as the town’s gossips, that she was right to fight.
I don’t know the story behind the widow Clicquot name, although a glass or two of Veuve Clicquot Champagne has passed my lips over the years, but I’d like to think that this book does her, her hard work and extraordinary life justice.
The French House is available in ebook and paperback formats and if you enjoy historical fiction, with strong female characters and a fast-moving plot, all washed down with a glass of Champagne, add this book to your 2021 reading list.
Helen loves historical fiction, and in her writing, she's fascinated by the women throughout history who have made their mark against all the odds. She finds researching the architecture, art and customs of the time really inspirational, and the tiniest detail can spark an idea for a whole chapter. Her female characters rail against the social constraints to which they are subject and often achieve great success, but they are of course flawed and human, like the rest of us. It's the motivations, flaws, loves and every-day lives of her characters that she loves to bring life, against sweeping historical backdrops - and she will find any excuse to take off and research a captivating location or person for her next story.
Her first novel is set in the Champagne region in France, and she is currently working on her next one, set in late eighteenth-century Paris. She spent a lot of time in France as a child, has lived in Paris and spent a year with her family in a fishing village in South West France, so that's where her books have ended up being set so far. Who knows where next!