Friday, February 24, 2017

REVIEW: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Author: Joanne Harris
Publisher: Penguin/Random House
Genre: Magic Realism/Literary

2/5 stars
PG-13 for domestic violence, sexual content, language
Recommend to: Due to an ending in direct conflict with its own theme, I probably won't recommend this to anyone.

Overall Impression
While I loved the quirky, eccentric characters and the luxuriant writing style within this book, it resolves in a hypocritical conclusion that taints the supposed theme of uniting people together. And no matter how much you enjoy a book, an unsatisfactory ending can ruin the whole of it.

Greeted as "an amazement of riches ... few readers will be able to resist" by The New York TimesChocolat 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 Review

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.

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 frustrated and misguided 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 298
It's an interesting story and beautifully told, but!

The ending was in direct conflict with the unifying theme of the story, which destroyed the 'light hearted, feel-good' vibe I'd had up to that point.

My main issue with Chocolat is that what seems to be a story unifying a town divided by their beliefs -a story of righting wrongs, repairing relationships, self-awareness, and mending wounds- turns out only to unify the outcasts together against the town's supposed 'villains', completely destroying the theme of unification.

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 in turn become the outcasts. There aren't any reconciliations between the two groups, even within families, and that's what I expected to see. I waited the entire book for the characters of the town to find some common ground and start fresh and they don't. Instead, the townspeople merely swap out one bigotry for another and Lansquenet isn't any more united or better off as a whole than it was before.

I had hoped Chocolat would be a wonderful story of overcoming differences to join opposing sides together, buit disappointed, leaving as an aftertaste not just the luxury of divine chocolate, but 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!

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