Saturday, May 07, 2016

A return to historic Napa: Kristen Harnisch's The California Wife

Second in a series about a Franco-American winemaking family at the turn of the 20th century, The California Wife presents the next stage in life for its heroine and hero – as well as the next step in the development of their winemaking business. The Vintner’s Daughter (see earlier review) was an enjoyable romantic saga, and this new entry, which spans 1897 to 1906, is even more involving. Harnisch has hit her stride as a writer: the pacing never flags throughout this lengthy novel, and the many trials that Sara and Philippe Lemieux undergo, separately and together, add new layers to their character.

Sara and Philippe, whose families shared a painful history in France’s Loire Valley, get married and settle on their large California vineyard, planning to raise their orphaned nephew as their own. However, Sara’s desires are torn between making Eagle’s Run a success and her obligations toward her beloved vineyard back home. Competition among local winemakers is heating up; so is pressure from prohibitionists.

The story brings readers deeply into the economics of the wine industry – a unique historical fiction subject – as the couple negotiates prices, develops creative sales techniques, and secures buyers in Napa and elsewhere. Philippe’s role as primary supplier of sacramental wine to the local archdiocese causes grumblings, and that’s just one impediment to their financial goals.

Although their love remains strong, their married life is equally turbulent. Operating within a male-dominated field, Sara’s vast wine-growing experience is sometimes downplayed, and Philippe’s former mistress introduces a new complication to their happiness.

Later chapters draw in the viewpoint of Sara’s good friend, Marie Chevreau, an experienced midwife who aspires to become a surgeon – another ambitious woman whose presence complements the growing cast. Readers will enjoy being whisked back in time to Napa’s beginnings as a major wine-producing region, and the stage is set for future adventures with these warm-hearted, ambitious characters.

The California Wife was published by HarperCollins Canada in February in trade paperback (C$22.99), and the US edition is published by She Writes Press ($17.95) this month.  The review copy was sent to me by the Canadian publisher for review in February's Historical Novels Review.

On Monday, I'll have a guest post from the author about California's historic winemaking industry.


  1. In ye olden days of another golden age of television, this author's books would have been the most perfect candidates for broadcast television's movie miniseries. Just the visuals alone!

    Love, C.