Meant to post this in the States. #fail 😛
First published in: 1999
This edition: Black Swan 2000
Genre: magical realism, foodie-lit
Cover illustration by Stuart Haygarth
I found this secondhand copy of CHOCOLAT in England and figured I should bring it, if only for the fact that Johnny Depp plays in the movie version, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with reading a fun book, and daydreaming about Johnny Depp simultaneously. It's like two of my most favorite things to do in one. It did not disappoint – on both ends. Johnny Depp, say no more – plus CHOCOLAT is fun read for sure and very atmospheric, as it's set in a quirky French village starring an interesting group of characters.
Vianne Rocher and her little daughter Anouk, who've lived nomadic lives, have arrived in Lansquenet to settle for a while. To earn a living, Vianne opens a delightful chocolaterie right across from the church.
Lansquenet's Father Reynaud is more than a little troubled about the entire ordeal. First of all, Vianne is a pagan stranger – unknown, exotic and thus not to be trusted; she doesn't even go to church! Second, to open a chocolate shop during Lent – the time where abstinence and self-control are supposed to be valued… to tempt the entire congregation into sin, it is unacceptable to Reynaud. No, it is a direct insult!
…needless to say, Reynaud will stop at nothing to thwart both Vianne's hopes for a new start, and her sweet business in Lansquenet.
This book is obviously a must for lovers of chocolate, and food in general. The descriptions, my my, they are mouth-watering at times. This is the truth: I put down the book once and made myself a hot chocolate ("I need a chocolat chaud"), because I couldn't stand it anymore. CHOCOLAT is tormenting for the all-too-willing stomach, haha.
And there are magical elements to this book, but they are subtle, gentle. It leaves something to the imagination. Where GARDEN SPELLS (R&R 085) by Sarah Addison Allen failed, CHOCOLAT by Joanne Harris succeeds: a blend of delicious food writing with a touch of strange, a hint of magic. I was only two chapters into the novel when I realized that CHOCOLAT is perfect for my taste; it's exactly the book I'd been longing for and couldn't find in GARDEN SPELLS.
I savored1 every word.
But eventually, and against my expectations, what makes CHOCOLAT spark is the duel, in the form of alternating first-person perspective storytelling, between Vianne and Reynaud. Their stand-off is both amusing and fierce – and serious enough; the reader is invested and wants to know the outcome.
Reynaud is a hoot; his Chapter 3 rant about his congregration – or 'flock', as he prefers to refer to his churchgoers; sheep who follow as opposed to human beings (this denigrating attitude towards the people who attend 'his church' tells you how highly he thinks of himself, how low he thinks of the rest) – and their hypocrisies is both shocking and hilarious. You don't expect a priest to be so vindictive, so snide, but Reynaud is. Yet while it has a very funny side to it all – the evil priest – there is a sad part about it all, a hypocrisy of the worst kind. Reynaud doesn't seem to give a crap that one of his 'flock' beats up his wife on a regular basis, but Vianne is the devil incarnate because she opens a chocolate shop and – most importantly – doesn't go to church…?
I don't feel that it was Harris' intention to write an anti-church book when she made the priest the villain, the enemy. It's more about the character of Reynaud himself – a petty, cruel man (prime specimen of narcissist), whose role as a priest further stresses his intolerance towards anyone who doesn't fit his ideal. It's not about his church. It's about this man's messed up sense of right and wrong.
Some reviewers I've checked out have a hard time looking at the story as a whole and just see a church offended. CHOCOLAT is a satire. Keep that in mind if you're planning on reading this book, but – and I mean this kindly, not mockingly – tend to be sensitive about religion as a subject.
But I do admit it is refreshing that in CHOCOLAT, the church or at least the priest(s) connected to it aren't perfect. That the priest is the one in the wrong – not the atheist, not the pagan. I'm kind of tired of the notion that atheists and agnosts have no values, no morals of their own. Just because some people (like Vianne and Anouk) don't need the bible to guide their way in the world, that doesn't mean they aren't good people. My parents raised me well. They didn't need a church to do it.
It's kind of nice to see the tables turned for once; religion does not a good person make, necessarily. Harris acknowledges this and I appreciate that.
The movie disappointed me: they did not dare to keep the priest as the villain. Instead, they went with the typical villain: the politician. In this case, the mayor. What I felt was strong about CHOCOLAT, the book, was that Joanne Harris was brave enough to pick an unconventional and controversial villain. The movie backed down from the idea, and that was a pity in my opinion.
Ah, Johnny Depp sort of made up for it. But the book is far better.
Indulge in a little CHOCOLAT. No calories, but oh so delicious.
1. As I typed this, I realized I usually tend to spell it 'savoured', as the Brits would do. But who am I kidding… I learned my English American style 😛
Consistency doesn't hurt.
R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)