Thursday, November 29, 2012

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris. Viking, 1999

On a whim, Vianne Rocher and her 5 year old daughter move into a tiny town in France that is basically run by Reynaud, the cure`, a stern man who shepherds the villagers through their every move. With their brightly colored clothing and  outgoing ways, Vianne and Anouk  stand out like macaws in a flock of crows. Both Vianne and Reynaud have deep secrets and Vianne earns Reynaud’s enmity almost at once by opening a chocolate shop- which would be bad enough in his view, but to add insult to injury, she does it at the beginning of Lent, when Reynaud wants all to deny themselves any kind of pleasure. At first he feels she will fail quickly, but she has a touch not just with candy making but with people- she has the ability to know what people want or need. When she announces plans for a chocolate festival to be held on Easter Sunday, it’s war.

 This is a work of magical realism, but one where the magic is denied. We’re never entirely sure it’s real… but despite the denial, there are some pretty strong signs it is. It’s also a book about jealousy, prejudice, the value of being true to one’s self, aging with élan, love, loss, abuse, bullying and a lot of other things that make up life no matter where. Told in the alternating, first person POVs of Vianne and Reynaud, the book opens their pasts enough to us so we know why they act as they do, but leaves enough unsaid to keep us wanting more. The descriptive prose is glittering: the chocolates, the wrappings, the foods, the wine and champagne all appear in three dimensions and five senses. Don’t read this book if you are dieting; it provokes cravings that, in my case at least, will not be denied. A beautiful book. 

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