Vianne Rocher and her 6-year-old daughter, Anouk, arrive in the small village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes--"a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bourdeaux"--in February, during the carnival. Three days later, Vianne opens a luxuriant chocolate shop crammed with the most tempting of confections and offering a mouth-watering variety of hot chocolate drinks. It's Lent, the shop is opposite the church and open on Sundays, and Francis Reynaud, the austere parish priest, is livid.
One by one the locals succumb to Vianne's concoctions. Joanne Harris weaves their secrets and troubles, their loves and desires, into her third novel, with the lightest touch. There's sad, polite Guillame and his dying dog; thieving, beaten-up Joséphine Muscat; schoolchildren who declare it "hypercool" when Vianne says they can help eat the window display--a gingerbread house complete with witch. And there's Armande, still vigorous in her 80s, who can see Anouk's "imaginary" rabbit, Pantoufle, and recognizes Vianne for who she really is. However, certain villagers--including Armande's snobby daughter and Joséphine's violent husband--side with Reynaud. So when Vianne announces a Grand Festival of Chocolate commencing Easter Sunday, it's all-out war: war between church and chocolate, between good and evil, between love and dogma.
Pages: 306 (paperback)
Rating: 7 out of 10
I read Chocolat by Joanne Harris for the second meeting of the Natick book club. When the book was selected, I was excited for two reasons. First, I had seen and enjoyed the movie. Second, I already owned the book.
As I read the book, I realized that it was much more than a love story between a stranger in town and an eccentric owner of a chocolate shop. The book is filled with examples of the tension between indulgence, moderation, and abstinence. To me Vianne Roucher represented the struggle to have pleasure while living with purpose. She started the Chocolat cafe to do something she loves which is cooking and ends up helping people by listening to their stories and giving them their favorite chocolates. Reynaud who is the town priest represents complete abstinence. He is horrified at the existence of the cafe and views it and Vianne as an affront to the views he holds most dear. Through flashbacks, I learned that both sides of the spectrum are more complex than they appear. In particular, I was struck with Reynaud's story. He clings very strongly to certain aspects of his faith to make sense of something horrible he witnessed as a young child.
The other characters all had their own versions of the struggle between what I perceived as pure evil and pure good. One of the universal themes of the book is that the people who are most at peace are those who use their own moral compass to navigate what is good and what is bad. I found this played out most clearly in the interconnected relationship between Josephine, Armande, and Guillarne. All the characters were outside of the mainstream and found comfort in the Cafe. I really loved reading how they formed their own community and created safe spaces for themselves.
One thing I did not care for much was the character of Roux. In particular, I could not figure out his connection with Vianne. At the end of the book, I was confused and puzzled by his role. The last twenty pages or so were packed with plot summary. While everything wrapped up, I found that it was a bit too tidy and some things (like the Roux situation) did not fit well with the rest of the plot.
Nonetheless, I was glad that I read the book because I got to discuss it over a fun night out at a yummy place. Also, I got to drool over chocolate which is certainly not a bad thing!
I am using the book to work towards completing the following challenges:
- Orbis Terrarum: The author was born in England. More information on her bio is found here.
- World Party Reading Challenge: The book takes place in France
- Global Reading Challenge: The book is set in France
- What's in a Name Three: It fulfills the food category.
- Women Unbound: The story focus on a woman trying to make her place in a new village. She helps other people find their own voices and create their own paths.
- Reading Western Europe: The story unfolds in a village in France.