It's a whopper review - get comfy. I bought this book for the princely sum of 20p at a library sale.
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
We begin with the exotic and strong-minded independent Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk blowing into the small French village of Lansquenet on the wings of a carnival wind.
Travellers at heart they are at once seduced by the atmosphere and magic of the carnival and the smallness of the community. Vianne takes the lease of the old derelict bakers and prepares to open it as a chocolate boutique - much to the chagrin of the local priest Father Reynaud.
Furious that this woman, this SINGLE woman with child has dared to open up such a shop during Lent is bad enough for Reynaud - but the gall of the woman to open the monstrosity directly opposite his church enrages him. Desperately he tries to turn the villagers against her and is infuriated when one by one they are drawn as if by magic through the doors of the colourful chocolate shop.
Although this sounds a simple tale it is in fact quite intricate. Vianne hides many secrets about her past - the fact that her Mother was a lone parent traveller also, flitting from one country to the next until her death, thereby releasing Vianne from the constant travelling, constant running. But from what? And why does Vianne choose the same existence for herself and her own daughter?
Many people claimed her mother to be a witch - including her mother herself, a cruel name, not one that Vianne likes. She too has the way of the Pagans but refuses to use them for her own self-good. Instead drawing out what a person’s favourite chocolate is, gaining their trust and trying to better their lives.
An interesting and bizarre cast of characters grace the New York style stools of Vianne’s boutique these include:
Armande ~ The 80 year old rebel wealthy widow. Bored with being in constant mourning as her friends and family pop their clogs. She decides to just dress constantly in black but wears the naughty crimson red silk undies in protest. A diabetic with a fondness for the yummier things in life - she constantly infuriates her daughter by chowing down on chocolate and refusing to die.
Caro ~ The afore-mentioned daughter of Armande. The uptight label wearing, twin set and pearls leader of the ‘Bible Crew’, is constantly embarrassed at her Mothers eccentricity. Believing that everything should be prim and proper; a place for everything and everything in it’s place. Armande's place is a care home if only Caro could make her see it.
Luc ~ Caro’s long suffering son. You know the type. Mummies boy. Slicked back hair, shy - Billy No-mates. Too scared to voice his own opinion for fear of his Mother’s wrath he develops a stutter. Banned from seeing his Grandmother Armande because of her corruptive influence he gets the chance to shine when Vianne weaves her own unique magic in a cup of hot chocolate.
Anouk ~ Vianne’s very own daughter. No friends of her own because of the constant wanderlust that has been her life. Her only companion is Pantoufle the rabbit. Her imaginary friend. A bright young girl, vivid in her imagination and as talented as her Mother.
Guillaume ~ The gentle bachelor. Scrupulously neat - his constant companion is his faithful dog Charly. Who is dying. Too afraid to release the dog from it’s suffering and too caring not too he faces losing his oldest friend. Taken under the wing of Armande, an unlikely friendship is struck.
Josephine ~ The battered wife with an addiction to shoplifting as compensation. A beautiful heart hidden beneath a multitude of scars and bruises. The day she targets Vianne’s boutique for her little hobby is the day she turns her life around.
Roux ~ The traveller who sails into town on his barge but doesn’t get the chance to sail out again. Despised by Reynaud and his ‘Bible Crew’ he soon finds the stores and cafe’s of Lansquenet closed to him and his kin. All the stores but one that is.
Reynaud ~ The priest. Obsessed with righteousness and good. Repelled by sinners and their sins, perhaps not the best person to lead a congregation. Hiding secrets galore he slowly develops an unhealthy obsession with the ‘Pagan Witch’ that is Vianne. Believing her to be the cause of all the unrest and change in the village he sets out to get rid of her and her unruly brat too.
To say this book is not what I expected is a huge understatement. I ended up reading this in a day. I initially thought such old fashioned idealisms set in the scene of today seemed so unlikely. The feud between Reynaud and Vianne over CHOCOLATE - preposterous. And yet it worked... although having said that, I have since watched the film and it also works if you ignore the few mentions of present day technology and imagine it set in the past.
Most of the characters could easily be identified as people that wander around many towns and villages in any country. Perhaps that’s why they are so easy to identify with and feel compassion towards. Joanne Harris draws you in completely. What at first I thought was going to be a girly novel was SO not. So many issues are dealt with in the 320 pages - death, murder, suicide, and prejudice, friendship and much, much more. I found the odd paragraph typed in French a bit hard to understand (having dropped French in school as soon as was humanly possible) but these were few and far between, you got the general gist of what was meant.
I found the way the novel was set out extremely clever. It is told entirely through the eyes of Vianne and Reynaud, events are told to us second hand through their own words and thoughts... the whole novel spans just a couple of weeks, though it seems so much more.
I came away from this novel with a smile on my face ~ it didn’t end the way I hoped it would but I still came away satisfied. Joanne Harris encourages people to look inside themselves and find the good. You don’t need special powers to turn your life around - we all have the magic inside us to achieve it for ourselves.
I would recommend this book to absolutely everyone. If you are a chocolate fan then this will be a delicious treat just for the pure and simple fact that nearly every page has some form of chocolate being ingested in the most drool-inducing manner. Whether it be melted down and drunk with Tia-Maria or served warm over croissants. When you pick up this book check your diet in at the door. I will certainly be trying some of the suggestions myself; Joanne Harris gets full marks for managing a veritable chocolate recipe book so successfully entwined within a novel.
Go on - Indulge in some Chocolat.
Oh and for the record - the film, even though it stars the luscious Johnny Depp just doesn't even begin to compare with the book. It is very sickly sweet where the book is actually quite dark.
Thanks for stopping by :)
*This review is adapted from one I wrote a fair while back on Ciao.co.uk*