Review of Chocolat

Book 3 in my first 52 books challenge. Originally published February 8, 2004.

First, a guilty admittance: I read Chocolat around the middle of last week. In fact, I devoured it.

Author: Joanne Harris
Published: 1999
Where got: Public library
Genre: Chick lit

Chocolat is a light and fun read and although I have seen the movie (which broadly follows the story in the book), I was unable to put it down.

The story is that of chocolatier Vianne and her daughter Anouk, rootless itinerants who, one day at the beginning of Lent, drift into the small French village of Lansquenet and start up a chocolate shop. Vianne immediately provokes the dislike of the village priest, padre Francis Reynaud, who sees her as a threat to his authority over the villagers, who forget all about fasting and proper Lenten behaviour when they encounter the delights of Vianne's shop. What provokes the priest in the beginning is Vianne's self-professed atheism and the impropriety of opening a chocolate shop during Lent, a time when he expects his parishioners to follow his example and deny themselves meat and all luxuries in food and drink. His dislike turns to hatred when Vianne keeps her shop open on Sundays, something he sees as her wantonly tempting the parishioners away from his influence right after mass, a time when he believes they should be especially humble and obedient to the laws of the church. The outcome is a psychological war, with the participation of the villagers, some of whom back Vianne and some padre Reynaud.

Vianne acts as her conscience and insight tell her to and further enrages the priest and his posse by allowing gypsies into her shop who are not getting served anywhere else, rescuing the battered wife of a café owner in the village, and encouraging an old woman who has long waged a war with the priest over various subjects. The old lady immediately recognises Vianne as a fellow witch, but Vianne has the ability to see what kind of chocolate is the best for each person, and can to some extent read people's minds.

The priest is someone who should really have been born in the middle ages. He is ascetic to the point of nearly starving himself and suffers from a biting bad conscience over something that happened when he was a child and really was not his fault (and over something else that was). He denies himself more and more as Lent passes and at the same time becomes more and more suspicious of and hateful towards Vianne and the gypsies who have moored their boats at the riverside on the edge of the village.

The story itself has a timeless feel to it and could easily have happened at nearly any time during the 20th or even the 19th century. The only indication of it being modern is a passing mention of one of the villages possessing a satellite dish.

The book is well written and engrossing. You keep reading to find out what happens next - not that there is a lot of action and excitement, but the character development and the reader's curiosity about the character's fates are enough to keep the pages turning. Most of the characters are alive and believable. You come to care about what happens to Josefine, long to know what the priest's secret is, and wonder if anything will happen between Vianne and Roux. The descriptions of Vianne's chocolate creations are sensuous and tempting, and make you want to run to the nearest candy shop and buy a box of luxury chocolates to munch on while you read.

The story is told in turn by Vianne and pare Reynaud. My only complaint is that although Harris manages quite well to portray the differences in their characters through their narratives, their voices and style are too alike. It may be that she is trying to show the reader that they are actually more alike than they would admit themselves. I really can't tell.

Rating: A delightful and delicious box of chocolates ready to be devoured and savoured by romantics and lovers of magic realism. 4 out of 5 stars.

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