Book Review for “Champagne Widows: First Woman of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot” by Rebecca Rosenberg.
Summary: “Champagne, France, 1800. Twenty-year-old Barbe-Nicole inherited Le Nez (an uncanny sense of smell) from her great-grandfather, a renowned champagne maker. She is determined to use Le Nez to make great champagne, but the Napoleon Code prohibits women from owning a business. When she learns her childhood sweetheart, François Clicquot, wants to start a winery, she marries him despite his mental illness. Soon, her husband’s tragic death forces her to become Veuve (Widow) Clicquot and grapple with a domineering partner, the complexities of making champagne, and six Napoleon wars, which cripple her ability to sell champagne.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Literary, Women, Fiction; Settings: Historical, France: Champagne region; Other Categories: Novel, Biographical.
I want to start this review by saying that although the look of the cover of this book is generally nice, I’m unsure why I thought that this book was going to take place during the 1920s. I’m thinking that the dress style of the woman on the cover reminds me more of the 1920s than the French style of the late 1790s and early 1800s. Yes, I know that in America that hoop skirts were still in fashion back when the high-waist, A-Line dresses started to crop up in Europe. Still, there’s something about the dress on the woman in the drawing that felt like post-Great War 1900s to me. Obviously, I’m not going to discount this book’s stars because of a graphic that felt a touch misleading, but I did want to mention it, just in case you get that impression as well. No, this book takes place during rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Napoleonic wars he fought to take over Europe through his exile to the Island of Elba in 1812.
Why this is important is because our protagonist established the world-famous Veuve Clicquot champagne winery during this period in history, and they are making champagne there to this day! What is significant here is that a woman, a widow (veuve is French for widow), would become such an extraordinary entrepreneur, especially considering the extremely difficult times in which to start up such a complex and exacting business. This is one of the things that Rosenberg focuses upon with this novel, where she leaves little to the imagination regarding the bloody wars raging around her, which ravaged the male population and brought hardships and famine to those that the soldiers left behind. That, combined with the diseases and epidemics that poverty and hunger bring with them, left many women without their husbands, as it did with Veuve Clicquot herself. This is why Rosenberg called this book “Champagne Widows,” because the vast majority of her workers – the pickers and the sorters and the pressers and the bottlers – were women whose husbands were serving in Napoleon’s armies.
While Rosenberg does bring in some of these women, the main spotlight is on Barbe-Nicole, the Veuve Clicquot, along with some parts regarding Barbe-Nicole’s family, particularly her father. Obviously, back then women were not land owners or business people, as all their wealth and doweries went directly to their husbands. Essentially, they had no rights to allow them their own independence. Women didn’t even get the right to vote in France until 1944, so despite all the “equality” lauded about with the French Revolution’s slogan, that only extended to men (which, I guess, is why they included “fraternity” – brotherhood, and not “sorority” – sisterhood)! This is what makes Barbe-Nicole so amazing and such a fascinating subject for a novel. Furthermore, Rosenberg does a really wonderful job of bringing Barbe-Nicole to life with this book, using a first-person narrative to help us get inside her head and heart.
In particular, Rosenberg doesn’t hold back regarding the sights and sounds that Barbe-Nicole experiences through both her successes and failures. This is there the “Le Nez” comes in – meaning “the nose” – which is the heightened ability to smell (and taste) subtle scents and flavors in foods and drinks. There were times when Rosenberg described things that were truly disgusting, while other times I could almost smell the perfumes that Barbe-Nicole was experiencing along with her. While I’m sure Rosenberg’s imagination was able to run wild with this, I also have no doubt that this amazing talent was present in this woman. This also allowed Rosenberg to wax somewhat poetic with her descriptions in order to bring all this to life. For example, one of the most powerful scenes in this book is when Barbe-Nicole has a very difficult birth of her only child. I swear, I could feel the contractions along with her!
If I have anything to criticize here it would be the inclusion of Napoleon’s “Little Red Man.” This person or apparition was chronicled by Napoleon as having met with him, but which was probably more a figment of his paranoid imagination. Rosenberg describes him as a particularly ghoulish figure, with stinking, maggoty flesh. My problem is, although Napoleon probably believed this ghost was real, I’m not sure Rosenberg should have allowed others to see him. In any case, I have to say that I really enjoyed this novel, with such a wonderful protagonist and an intriguing story. I can warmly recommend it with a very healthy four and a half stars out of five!
Rebecca Rosenberg released her novel “Champagne Widows” on Kindle on August 17, 2021, and Lion Heart Publishing released this book in print on September 1, 2021 (although one site says it will only be available in March 2022). This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me an ARC of this novel via her newsletter.