Chocolat, by Joanne Harris.
"Are we staying? Are we, maman?" She tugs at my arm, insistently. "I like it, I like it here. Are we staying?"
I catch her up in my arms and kiss the top of her head. She smells of smoke and frying pancakes and warm bedclothes on a winter's morning. Why not? It's as good a place as any.
"Yes, of course," I tell her, my mouth in her hair. "Of course we are." Not quite a lie. This time it may even be true. - from Chocolat, page 5 -
Vianne Rocher and her adorable six year old daughter Anouk arrive in the small French town of Lansquenet during a carnival and decide to stay and make it their home. Vianne immediately opens a chocolaterie and begins to minister to the town's quirky and sometimes troubled inhabitants -- including the misunderstood Josephine, the river gypsy Roux, the elderly and sympathetic Armande Voizin, and the dog-loving Guillaume. Vianne has an uncanny ability to know what each of these people need and her lavish chocolates and candies appeal to their desire to feed temptation and deny themselves nothing. But there is a dark shadow lurking in the village in the guise of a priest by the name of Pere Reynaud. Certain that Vianne and her daughter are witches who put his church in peril, the priest plans to bring them down on the eve of Easter as the town prepares to celebrate by participating in a huge chocolate festival.
Joanne Harris writes with rich, evocative language. Her descriptions of place and the people who inhabit the town of Lansquenet are luscious. When she writes of cooking, I found myself slipping between her words and sensing the joy of this experience.
There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking; in the choosing of the ingredients, the process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing, and flavoring, the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional utensils - the pestle and mortar with which my mother made her incense turned to a more homely purpose, her spices and aromatics giving up their subtleties to a baser, more sensual magic. And it is partly the transience of it that delights me; so much loving preparation, so much art and experience, put into a pleasure that can last only a moment, and which only a few will ever fully appreciate. - from Chocolat, page 51 -
So I was a bit baffled when I found myself not loving this book. I wanted to love it. I had looked forward to reading it. I had read glowing reviews of it. But, something was missing.
The plot is a bit thin. There are many unanswered questions about Vianne and her mother...who she remembers throughout the story and who has impacted her life greatly. I was never sure why Vianne never stayed in one place for long and who she was running from. And although I enjoyed the quirky village characters, Harris made the good ones too good and the evil ones too evil.
For five minutes I stand alone in the square with my arms held out, feeling the wind in my hair. I have forgotten to bring a coat, and my red skirt billows out around me. I am a kite, feeling the wind, rising in an instant above the church tower, rising above myself. For a moment I am disoriented, seeing the scarlet figure below in the square, at once here and there. Falling back into myself, breathless, I see Reynaud's face staring out from a high window, his eyes dark with resentment. he looks pale, the bright sunlight barely grazing his skin with color. His hands are clenched on the sill before him, and his knuckles are the bleached whiteness of his face. - from Chocolat, page 135 -
I had trouble rating this book. On the one hand, Harris writes with a fluidity and beauty that I appreciated and would rate a 4.5. On the other hand, I was disappointed in a plot that seemed to fall short and would only garner a 2.5 or 3. The allure of language kept me turning the pages -- and certainly there are plenty of readers who found this to be enough to give Chocolat sumptous reviews. Perhaps it was all those great reviews which raised my expectations. In the end, I closed the book and felt a bit disappointed. Despite this, I will give Harris another try, if only to enjoy her rich descriptions.
Three and a half stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".