Thursday, June 18, 2009
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud identifies her as a serious danger to his flock--especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial. War is declared as the priest denounces the newcomer's wares as the ultimate sin.
Suddenly Vianne's shop-cum-cafe means that there is somewhere for secrets to be whispered, grievances to be aired, dreams to be tested. But Vianne's plans for an Easter Chocolate Festival divide the whole community in a conflict that escalates into a "Church not Chocolate" battle. As mouths water in anticipation, can the solemnity of the Church compare with the pagan passion of a chocolate eclair?
Character Development: 9/10
Overall Enjoyment: 7/10
Cussing: Some vile name-calling, but nothing worse than that.
Alcohol, Drugs, etc: Nothing illicit.
Sexual Content: One scene; some conversation. Minimal.
Disturbing Images/Violence: Wife abuse.
Harris' Chocolat is first and foremost a subtle yet adamant support of individualism. I found it a deeply interesting and entertaining read that perfectly captured the essence of the French countryside and chocolate itself. The mouth-watering imagery and poetic, lyrical voice gave the book a dreamlike tone that is surprising in what it reveals.
The story is imbued with gypsy superstitions and pagan folklore while retaining a crisp sense of reality. Nothing is perfect in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, despite its facade of humbleness and piety. Harris never leaves us in doubt of the town's overall deceitfulness, but she keeps us caring for it all the same.
The narration--alternating between the perspective of the protagonist, Vianne, and her enemy, Reynaud--is a very unique element of the novel. We come to understand both characters in such depth, and realize that neither of them are wholly good, bad, wrong, or right. Being asked to empathize with the antagonist was sometimes disconcerting. However, overall it added an amazing level of conflict to the story that we wouldn't be able to comprehend otherwise.
Anyone who enjoyed the movie version of Chocolat should read this book, if only for a bit of perspective. Though it is entirely different in some of the most basic ways, the book gives the reader some insight into the characters that is unavailable in the movie. I can't decide which I like better--they are just so different!--but I know that many would prefer the movie, while some may just love the book!
Harris perfectly presents a fictional setting typical of small European towns. By tossing the wild Wiccan, Vianne, into a village of humble Christians, she reveals that the deepest fear of the community is not corruption by chocolate--it is the fact that chocolate shows them just how corrupt they really are. Divided between the exotic, dangerous lure of Vianne's chocolate and what they have trusted forever, each must make the decision to grasp what small amount of their safe life they have left or to reveal themselves to the world and overcome the narrow mindedness of their peers. And all of this because of chocolate.