Book Review: The California Wife by Kristen Harnisch

In August of 2015 I had the pleasure of meeting novelist Kristen Harnisch at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. I was introduced to her first novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel about a young French woman, Sara Thibault, who grows up making wine with her father, a winemaker in the Loire Valley. Forced to flee to America, she naturally makes her way west to California, where a fledgling wine industry is growing in Napa Valley. Naturally, I loved it. As a female winemaker-cum-writer with a love of history, I was pretty much the ideal audience for The Vintner’s Daughter.

The California Wife is the continuation of Sara’s story, now Sara Lemieux – to no one’s surprise, she has found love in California with a vintner, also French, who coincidentally hails from the same small region that she does. (There is a lot more to this coincidence than I’m letting on.) The California Wife takes place over the course of several years, and depicts in rich detail a number of important historical events, including the 1900 Paris World Fair and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The California Wife is a continuation of Sara’s story, and it is, at heart, hers to tell, but there are so many new characters at play that at times – particularly towards the end – the story slips away from her. To my surprise, this in no way detracted from the book. If anything, it revitalized a story that was, in some ways, beginning to grow stale.

The California Wife

The book begins in France, as Sara is preparing to marry Philippe Lemieux. They struggle to rebuild relationships – Philippe’s brother was quite a destructive personality – and to rebuild Sara’s ancestral home, which was destroyed in a fire as Sara fled. The first half of the book is mostly about Sara realizing that marriage isn’t always a picnic, as she and Philippe argue over money, children, how to manage the business, and more. The ups and downs of Sara’s marriage and her relationship with Philippe grow tiring at points, as it seems they’re constantly either finding something new to fight over or somehow resolving the fight. While the business aspect of managing an early 20th century winery was interesting to me, I imagine that has a lot to do with my love of winemaking. And even for me, that dragged at times.

Business aside, there were some fascinating moments in Sara and Philippe’s relationship. Their trip to the 1900 Paris World Fair was thrilling. I felt like I was really there, seeing the sights and experiencing the fair alongside them. It was a historical moment brought to life. Later, when Sara learns that Philippe has had a child out of wedlock – and before Sara was ever in the picture – she must decide how to handle the news. The evolution of Sara’s reaction was poignant and very real. And there is a devastating moment in the book that I can’t share for obvious reasons – spoilers! – that cast both characters in a different light.

But interestingly enough, for me, the best part of the book was not about Sara Lemieux, or winemaking at all. It was Marie’s story, who we met briefly in the first book as the midwife who delivers Sara’s sister’s baby boy, Luc, in New York City. Marie is also connected to Philippe’s family, by way of daughter fathered out of wedlock by Philippe’s brother Bastien. In this book, Marie is persuaded by Sara to come out to San Francisco to study to be a surgeon. Marie is the first female student to attend the medical school there, and much of the second half of The California Wife is devoted to Marie’s story. Marie’s studies give us a fascinating bit of insight into medical techniques at the beginning of the 20th century, as doctors were just beginning to perform advanced surgeries, and using anesthetics like chloroform and cocaine. If The Vintner’s Daughter felt firmly lodged in the past, The California Wife, with electricity, phone calls, and cars, feels almost modern. Nothing throws that contrast so sharply into light as Marie’s fledgling career as a surgeon.

Marie is every bit as captivating a heroine as Sara, and personally I’d almost like to see a prequel about her backstory as a midwife in New York. She, too, finds love on the West Coast, a developing romance with a wealthy doctor who also happens to be one of her teachers. (Scandalous!) Her struggles for legitimacy as the only woman in her class, along with her tenacity and love for her daughter, make her every bit as endearing a protagonist as Sara.

The book ends on a devastating – but hopeful – note, which makes me think Kristen Harnisch isn’t done with this cast of characters yet. With talk of the Kaiser raising an army and plenty of rebuilding to be done after the San Francisco earthquake, it seems history will always provide ample material for new stories. About halfway through this book, I was close to thinking the story was tapped out, languishing in marital discord and business trivialities. But now that I’ve finished, and it’s clear the extended Lemieux family has more in store, I’m hoping for a third in the series. (Or better yet, the aforementioned prequel!)

All in all, another vivid work of historical fiction with a compelling cast of characters. Highly recommended!