Chocolat by Joanne Harris

By Ekta R. Garg

September 19, 2012

Rated: Bookmark it!

A mysterious woman with a young daughter in tow arrives in a small town in the French countryside, presumably looking for a quiet place to stay.  But when the resident priest makes it known that he disapproves of the woman’s lifestyle as well as her decision to turn a closed bakery into a chocolate shop, the new arrival can’t help but stand up to him in her own way.  Joanne Harris offers readers a book that is as sumptuous in its prose as are the chocolates and desserts she describes in Chocolat.

As small towns are wont to do, the residents of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes (called simply “Lansquenet” throughout the book) first eye Vianne Rocher with suspicion.  She arrives during the carnival on Shrove Tuesday, with her daughter, Anouk.  It’s as though destiny has brought Vianne to dull, quiet Lansquenet; she moves into the old bakery and begins work on Ash Wednesday to transform it into the chocolate shop in her mind’s eye.  The villagers don’t know quite what to make of Vianne and her vivacity for everything in life, but the priest, Francis Reynaud, decides in his first meeting with her that Vianne Rocher is not the type of woman who would be an asset to his parish.  She has intentionally rebuffed going to church and has made an enemy in the process: from her quiet but firm refusal to join the church, she has put herself in Reynaud’s sights as a woman to bring down.

Despite Reynaud’s overt disapproval, Vianne’s sunny personality slowly warms the townsfolk.  Some people, angling to win brownie points with Reynaud, voice their objection to her joining their community.  But many others come to enjoy and cherish Vianne’s friendship.  The feelings aren’t one-sided, however.  Vianne brings with her to Lansquenet a deep-seated desire for permanence, for stability.  And although she feels uncertain, she thinks she may have found it in this sleepy little French town.

Vianne’s presence in Lansquenet becomes a burr in Reynaud’s side, and when some local children suggest a chocolate festival to coincide with Easter—holy territory not to be trifled with, in Reynaud’s mind, and certainly not by holding a frivolous festival—Reynaud decides he must exercise his spiritual duty.  He must find a way to stop the festival.

Author Harris offers prose that will make the reader stop and re-read sentences, as much for their precision as for the descriptions of the treats Vianne sells in her shop-cum-home.  Readers will be able to smell the chocolate as it is shipped in raw form to Vianne’s residence and as she works to turn it into desserts that will make even those with the strongest willpower waver.  Written in first person, the book functions more as a conversation between Vianne and the reader and less as a story.  The intermittent chapters from Reynaud’s point of view offer slices of his thought process and only prove that even the mighty can fall—as Harris shows in an unexpected ending.

More details and descriptions of the surrounding landscape are the only things missing from this book.  But the vicarious consumption of chocolates and other sweets will surely make up for any lack of tourism.  I think anyone who enjoys good writing and surprise conclusions will definitely like this one.  I found out that there’s a sequel to Chocolat called The Girl with No Shadow, and I might want to read it in the future if only for more good writing.

***

What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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