Author: Joanne Harris
Publisher: Penguin/Random House
Genre: Magic Realism/Literary
PG-13 for domestic violence, sexual content, language
Recommend most likely for fans of the genre. I was disappointed enough with the ending I'd be very particular who I recommended it to.
Greeted as "an amazement of riches ... few readers will be able to resist" by The New York Times, Chocolat is an enchanting novel about a small French town turned upside down by the arrival of a bewitching chocolate confectioner, Vianne Rocher, and her spirited young daughter.
The ReviewI'm torn about this book. The thing is, I really enjoyed it. By page 9, with the line 'Old habits never die. And once you've been in the business of granting wishes, the impulse never quite leaves you.' I was hooked. Hooked. In my mind, our heroine Vianne Rocher took on the image of a subtle fairy godmother, just trying to spread a little good in the world, and I fell quite willingly into these pages. It was the end, unfortunately, that kind of ruined it for me. And no matter how much you enjoy a book, an unsatisfactory ending can really taint it.
I love the quirky characters. Old Armande with her childish glee and impish rebelliousness, Luc with his stutter and journey of self-confidence, Roux, Anouk, Josephine- I loved them all. Chocolat blends the small-town eccentricities and happenings of Gilmore Girls with an easy vein of magic realism that tastes reminiscent of The Night Circus.
They're all interesting characters, with their own quirks and demons to overcome, but the one who most intrigued me was the nemesis in the priest, Francis Reynaud. Chocolat is told from dual perspectives between he and Vianne, so we become quite familiar with him, his own struggles, his frustrations, and his flaws. As the story unfolds, we are fed bite-sized pieces of his backstory and the events that led to his current state. He intrigued me. He was broken, misled, trying to do the right things for all the wrong reasons and utterly failing, so I was watching his development pretty darn close.
Heavy issues and topics are gently courted on the luxurious comfort of fresh chocolates, which were described so vividly that I almost didn't need to have a box of them at my side while reading. (Almost, I said. Almost.) There is tragedy and its aftermath, self-doubt, domestic violence, the sorrow of death and the joy of life, but all told in a lighthearted lilt that keeps it from ever becoming too heavy. It is, fittingly, so like the chocolate Harris describes:
...the brief resistance of the chocolate shell as it meets the lips, the soft truffle inside...There are layers of flavor like the bouquet of a fine wine, a slight bitterness, a richness like ground coffee; warmth brings the flavor to life... -Page 298It's an interesting story and beautifully told.
Bet you sensed that coming. FYI, expect spoilers from here down.
In a nutshell, the ending did nothing that I anticipated, and what it did do actually unraveled what I had conceived of as the main theme of the story, which destroyed the 'light hearted, feel-good' vibe I'd had up until that point.
My main issue with Chocolat is that what seems to be a story of righted wrongs, repaired relationships, self-awareness, and mended wounds -when looked at closer- really isn't. The town of Lansquenet doesn't come together, its people don't overcome their differences and become stronger and happier for it. The status quo is merely overturned, building up the confidence and strength of the outcasts, and granting them rule over the previously accepted class, who are in turn cast down. There aren't any reconciliations between the two groups, even within families, and that's really what I wanted to see in this story. I wanted the characters of the town to find some common ground and start fresh. Instead, they merely swapped out one bigotry for another and the town isn't any better off as a whole than it was before.
The unsatisfactory ending was a culmination of several little tidbits throughout the story that I didn't like. It is, on the whole, a cliched pitching of religion against happiness. The antagonists of the story are the priest, his so-dubbed 'Bible groupies', and an abusive husband whose behavior is excused because he pays penance for it. I didn't pitch the book because of this vilifying of religion initially because I really believed that it wouldn't remain. I thought characters on both sides of the story would grow and develop and it would eventually lead to a happy ending for most everyone on some common ground.
Reynaud especially! I was ready for Reynaud's flash of revelation. I was waiting for reality to come crashing down around him, to see him dismayed at his own hate and spite, humbled and chastened by it. I wanted to see Reynaud's redemption; to witness at least the beginning of a change in him; for he and Vianne to part, perhaps, with a line not unlike the closing of Casablanca: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Alas. Reynaud is instead made into a pig, a bigot, a zealot, a laughingstock, with no hope of reform and not a shred of dignity left, and it really steamed my broccoli!
I had hoped Chocolat would break the mold, especially in terms of Reynaud's character -so much potential for a redemption arc!- but it disappointed, leaving as an aftertaste not just the luxury of divine chocolate, but a hint of stale cliche and the sour pinch of prejudice.
This does, however, lead to some interesting discussion on my Book vs. Movie comparison coming in March, so don't miss that!