It’s summer! I invite you to join Sarah-Kate Lynch as she transports us to the Champagne region of France. The House of Peine evoked blissful memories of celebrating the harvest and my 45th birthday with Joan Erath. We sat on a couple of bales of hay and drank her winery’s sparkling wine directly from the bottle. She taught me that the term “champagne” is reserved for sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France. It remains one of the happiest memories of my life.
Kiwi Mary, the host of the World’s Best Book Club, introduced me to Sarah-Kate Lynch with her gift of The House of Peine. I was hooked immediately. In the United States, the book’s title is House of Daughters.
Ms. Lynch visited the major champagne houses of France: Moët and Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, and Krug. She visited the Abbey in Hautvillers where Dom Pérignon is buried. The four generations of Tarlants at Champagne Tarlant, a boutique champagne house, were the inspiration for The House of Peine.
a small bottle of champagne, some cheese
to calm my frazzled nerves.
– Sarah-Kate Lynch
Champagne is made from a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier grapes “singing and dancing in perfect harmony.” Over lunch with Arnaud de Mareuil at Trianon, Ms. Lynch got the idea that the three sisters at the heart of her story needed to blend like the grapes of Champagne. Clementine has the “uncompromising strength” of pinot noir. Mathilde has the “utmost finesse” and “lingering elegance” of chardonnay. And, Sophie has the “hidden depth” of pinot meunier. The trio inherited the 300 year old House of Peine in Saint-Vincent-sur-Marne from their “foul-mouthed cantankerous old bossyboots” father Olivier:
Christophe [Paillard, Olivier’s attorney] found himself wanting to ask the old man what good could possibly come of bringing together his three alienated daughters around his crumbling near-ruin of a house and once-grand winery on the brink of collapse. It went against the laws of nature to wish that kind of disaster on your progeny. . .old barnacle. . .tortured troika. . .monstrous, really.
No one mourns Olivier’s passing. He died deep in debt. The sisters reluctantly reunite under the terms of his will and mourn the parenting they never got. Each sister harbors resentments, bitterness, pain, and regrets. Clementine has devoted her life to the winery and has an unrequited love for her neighbor Benoît Geoffroy. Mathilde runs a successful public relations firm in Manhattan and is married to George; they have a daughter Edie. Sophie Laroche is an uneducated street urchin with an artistic flair.
Love emerges slowly as the vines move from débourrement (bud burst) to vendange (harvest). Each sister struggles to contribute her talents to restore the winery to its former glory:
François Peine. . .first grew his grapes and bottled their juice back in 1697 when bubbles were still considered a mistake. . .Saint-Vincent-sur-Marne was a cru [official Champagne] village. . .House of Peine comprises eight hectares of grapes planted in chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier; the winery where the grapes are pressed and the wine is made; the cellars where the bottles are stored as they age; and the family home. . .land. . .was the family’s major asset.
The plot thickens when “haggle-toothed old crone” La Petite arrives to spend her final days at the House of Peine. She is soon joined by her sexy great-grandson Hector:
For as long as Clementine could remember, La Petite and her extended family of Romanian gypsies. . .had descended on the House of Peine for the harvest.
They would turn up. . .just in time for the grapes to be picked; would work like navvies for the week or 10 days the harvest took; then would disappear again.
La Petite informs the sisters of their family history:
Olivier. . .had everything he needed to be the most devoted of fathers but his heart was broken. . .he chose the numbness of the bottle over the pain of mending his heartbreak. . .
Olivier was a farmer. . .he knew that starving you would stunt your growth. Yet still, he starved you. . .
As a young boy your father had so much heart, so much hope. . .
Your grandfather died at the beginning of the second war. . .Poor Micheline [their grandmother]. . .
The Peines have always been good at hiding things. . .Clementine’s mother [Marie-France]. . .was a wonderful woman. . .helped a little with the Resistance. . .reminded us all that there was still room for joy. . .
He saved her life. . .he was in love. . .when she passed, Olivier was bereft. . .
As La Petite’s days dwindle toward her last, she shares her sage wisdom to help the sisters and Edie heal their broken hearts:
. . .mean is mean. . .especially when you’re on the receiving end.
Edie responds with an observation that many emotionally abandoned kids feel:
I guess maybe she [Mathilde] didn’t know what it would be like having a kid and that if I was a pair of shoes she would have taken me back and got a refund because I didn’t fit right. But you’re not allowed to do that with kids. There are laws.
La Petite serves as Edie’s enlightened witness:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with you. Nothing at all. You are perfect just the way you are. Perfect. . .your mother is mean. . .She never learned how to be a good mother.
La Petite informs George that Mathilde probably had postnatal depression after Edie’s birth. In a futile attempt to help George grow a spine, she talked to him about depression:
. . .turned into something else. . .we call it le nuage, the cloud. . .we encourage it. . .
We see it as part of life. . .You chase it, you catch it, you crush it. . .deal with the problem, you don’t pretend it’s not there. . .all wounds need tending. . .
Mathilde needs to cry. You shouldn’t be stopping her. . .
The wrong help is worse than no help at all. Mathilde needs rescuing. . .Yorg [George] just may not have the balls to do it because it’s not going to be an easy job. . .a lot of damage to be undone. . .We all arrive with the same capacity to bear fruit but somebody somewhere along the line needs to tend us. . .
The House of Peine bubbles with interesting information about the fine art of making champagne including:
All the best Champenois start off as girls. Oh sure, that old fart Dom Pérignon gets all the credit for discovering corks but his champagne was cloudy and ours would be too if it hadn’t been for the widow [veuve] Clicquot: she invented remuage [riddling or twisting of bottles to remove sediment]. Plus, before the widow Pommery dropped the dosage and made a brut. . .The widow Olry-Roederer was the first to insist on growing her own grapes. . .widows kept it going. By hook or crook, they kept it going.
Ms. Lynch very thoughtfully included a glossary of French and vigneron’s [winemaker’s] terms at the end of the book. As y’all can probably imagine, I love, love, loved this book. I can’t wait to drink the sparkling wine I bought for my photos as well as the bread, grapes, and cheeses.
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