Chocolat by Joanne Harris could be considered a chocoholic’s dream. Literally. A book about chocolate? Sign me up, right? While paved with good intentions – wall to wall chocolate, a small French town, a perfect mother/daughter relationship, a band of gypsies, a dash of practical magic – I hate to say that I felt like something was missing.
In the a very Mary Poppins-esque entrance, Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk make their way to the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes by way of the “wind.” Naturally they arrive alongside the first days of Lent and easily settle in despite the fuss surrounding their presence. Shortly thereafter, Vianne revamps the old bakery they live above into a chocolaterie that quickly catches the attention of the townspeople… most importantly, the local priest, Francis Reynaud. In alternating chapters, we follow the thoughts of Vianne versus Priest Reynaud – Vianne’s consumed by constant chatter of chocolate, the witchery taught to her by her mother that she never truly owns up to (and often tries to resist), and the various anxieties from essentially being on the run her entire life; his obsessed with driving the “evil” out of his precious town brought forth from the own discretions in his life… and not a whole lot else.
And that’s where the banality of Chocolat lies. As far as I was concerned, Chocolat was merely your typical “good vs. evil” story with various iterations throughout the short novel. The obvious between Vianne and Reynaud, or the pagan vs. the Catholic; the other found between the gypsies (or anyone “different” for that matter) and the townspeople. It got old quickly. And as it finally came to a conclusion, the final interactions between Vianne and Reynaud that had been building up the entire book were incredibly anti-climactic and did Chocolat no justice – no justice at all and did nothing to salvage the novel in the least. Unfortunately so, combined with over-cliched plot substance, at least one relationship worth mentioning was also incredibly forced between a certain leading female and a gypsy friend. I’ll leave that specific revelation to those who decide to venture through this book themselves.
But don’t let my disdain for Chocolat stop you from tasting it for yourself. While French chocolates I can’t pronounce and overused concepts did not do it for me, the empowering women characterized within are the bit I did like. Vianne, each time she opposed authority and gave unweilding support to others, was fantastic to read in a female lead character. And without giving away major plot points, both Armande Voizen and Josephine Muscat’s life decisions show a liberating view of the control women have over their own lives no matter what others say.
Despite my love for the magic and mysticism of the novel, this sadly falls under one of my least favorite books and one of which I hope the film version will be better.
First published October 1998
Genre: Fiction, Cultural, Food, Romance
Purchase: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Learn more about Chocolat on Goodreads