Chocolat by Joanne Harris
I remember liking the film Chocolat–it’s charming, funny, and simple as a fable. It’s also set in France, which always endears a work to me (except, strangely, Beauty and the Beast). I haven’t seen it recently, so my memories are a little vague, but I quite enjoyed it. Imagine my surprise when I found out Chocolat was based on a novel, which promptly went on the List. This means that my reading of the novel was flavored by the film–Armande was always Judi Dench in my mind’s eye, although Vianne was rarely Juliette Binoche.
Chocolat is the story of Vianne Rocher, a confectioner, and her daughter, Anouk. A traveler all her life, Vianne decides to settle down in the sleepy French hamlet of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes for a spell. She opens up her decadent chocolaterie, La Céleste Praline, situated directly across from the local church, a few days after Lent begins. Her chocolates and her presence begin to change lives for the better in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, but the parish curate, Francis Reynaud, views her arrival as a corrupting influence meant to bring down the Church itself. The novel follows their struggle from Lent to Easter, when Vianne wishes to host a chocolate festival of epic proportions.
Chocolat alternates between what appear to Vianne’s diary entries and Reynaud’s conversations with his mentor, the previous curate now lying in a vegetative state in a local hospital. As a great deal of the novel focuses on their struggle, it’s fun to see how Vianne and Reynaud view each other and the community. Vianne recognizes his power, but does her best to dismiss the paranoia she’s inherited from her mother concerning the Church and treat him well. She does stand up to him as politely as she can. Reynaud tries to treat her as a lost soul, but underneath, he seethes at her and everything she represents to him. He’s so wound up that it’s a delight to watch him unravel slowly as he loses ground.
Of the supporting characters, Armande, who figures greatly in the climax of the novel, is the most arresting–a crone who uses a mysterious secret as leverage against Reynaud and does exactly what she pleases, despite the protests of her prim daughter. Her relationship with Vianne is sweet to watch. There’s also Guilliaume, a man devoted to his ailing dog despite Reynaud’s protests that dogs do not have souls, and Narcisse, a gruff gardener. The gypsies who arrive towards the end of the novel are not as well developed–it is a short novel, after all. Roux, their leader, is quiet and defensive, and we don’t learn much about the rest of them. Still, they’re compelling, especially the contrast between how Vianne sees them and how Reynaud sees them.
One of the delights of reading Chocolat is the description of the food. Vianne loses herself in making her delicious creations, describing each confection so lovingly that I began to drool. Harris’ power of description is intoxicating. Not only do the chocolates sound delicious, but so do the other foods–there’s a description of a shellfish feast that I know would send a friend of mine into hives just by reading it. Vianne used cooking to escape her unstable life on the road with her mother, and it’s certainly an escape here. Harris writes Vianne warmly and Reynaud fanatically. It’s very accessible, stylistically.
I wasn’t prepared for the darkness of Vianne and Reynaud’s past. I shall spoil nothing, but as the main plot is mostly comic and the great battle for the souls of the village is mostly invented in the mind of Reynaud, it was a bit odd to learn about their dark pasts. I was also a bit perturbed to see that the novel is set in 1999 or thereabouts–a character is mentioned to have a massive videocassette collection. That threw me off–no matter how conservative a town is, I don’t think objections to Vianne and the gypsies would be so high in 1999. I don’t know, having never lived in a conservative French town in 1999, but the attitude of the whole town is so retro that it’s a little odd to have such a dated reference in the work. I would have vastly preferred for it to remain timeless. I will watch Chocolat soon for another Page To Screen feature, but I think they definitely did right by setting it in the fifties.
There’s also some magic present–Vianne occasionally reads her own tarot, can read thoughts, and, delightfully, tries scrying with chocolate. It’s not the focus of the novel and it’s treated very matter of fact, but it adds to Vianne’s desire to change the town.
It’s also, delightfully, a bit of a trifle–barely 250 pages long, it’s a quick, charming, and sweet read. It’s definitely worth it to see where the film came from. There is a sequel, published in the UK as The Lollipop Shoes and here in the US as The Girl With No Shadow, but the ending of Chocolat is so sweetly vague that I think I’ll leave Vianne and Anouk where I found them–in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.
Bottom line: A sweet trifle of a short novel that’s surprisingly darker than its film adaptation, Chocolat is a very charming novel, but it’s hard to appreciate it on its own in the aftermath of its wonderful film adaptation. Well worth a read.
I rented this book from the public library.