Thursday, November 22, 2007

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris

(pb; 1999)

From the back cover:

"When beautiful, unmarried Vianne Rocher sweeps into the pinched little French town of Lansquenet on the heels of carnival and opens a gem of a chocolate shop across the square from the church, she begins to wreak havoc with the town's Lenten vows. Her uncanny ability to perceive her customers' private discontents and alleviate them with just the right concoction coaxes the villagers to abandon themselves to temptation and happiness, but enrages Pere Reynaud, the local priest. Certain only a witch could stir such sinful indulgences and devise such clever cures, Reynauld pits himself against Vianne and vows to block the chocolate festival she plans for Easter Sunday, and to run her out of town forever. Witch or not (she'll never tell), Vianne soon sparks a dramatic confrontation between those who prefer the cold comforts of church and those who revel in their newly discovered taste for pleasure."


This charmer of a novel seduces (in a non-sexual way) as easily as its protagonist, Vianne Rocher, a woman whose empathy, skill (with people and food) and practicality made me want to stay up and read it, though my eyes were drooping dangerously at four a.m..

Equally beguiling are Chocolat's supporting characters: Armande Voizin, the eighty-year old, "obstreperous" iconclast who bedevils the priest Reynaud, and her family by refusing to lay down and die; Luc Clairmont, Armande's teenage grandson, whose shy, stuttering manner conceals his love of Rimbaudian poetry and his grandmother; Josephine Muscat, the battered, quietly resilient wife of a local cafe owner and probable arsonist; Guillaume Duplessis, whose sadness over the impending death of his sickly dog, Charly, gives way to something better; Michel Roux, aka Roux, a man whose gypsy flair is grounded in goodhearted, honest work; and Anouk Rocher, Vianne's six-year old daughter, whose sense of wonder and magic proves to be enchanting as her mother's.

The villains of the novel are also unforgettable: Pere Reynaud, whose book- and guilt-based faith has rendered him brittle; Paul Muscat, Josephine's lecherous, abusive husband; Caroline Clairmont, Armande's daughter and Luc's mother, an airhead and part of Reynaud's "Bible brigade".

Chocolat touches on so many classic themes -- good v. evil, Christianity v. Paganism, Food equals Life/Passion -- in an ostensibly easy way that even though I'd seen the film that resulted from this book, I was still drawn in immediately, even found myself getting upset at the villains' malfeasance.

A wondrous ride, this. By all means check this -- and its resultant 2000 film -- out.

In the film, Juliette Binoche played Vianne Rocher. Alfred Molina played Comte Paul de Reynaud. Carrie-Anne Moss played Caroline Clairmont. Judi Dench played Armande Voizin. Johnny Depp played Roux. Lena Olin played Josephine Muscat. Peter Stormare played Serge Muscat, the cinematic counterpart to Paul Muscat. Lasse Halström directed.

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