I love stories that feature outright magic, fantastical worlds and mythical creatures — but sometimes all it takes is a tiny dabble of enchantment to turn a story into something really special. That’s what Joanne Harris achieves with her bestseller, Chocolat, a timeless story about love, motherhood and, best of all, chocolate.
Chocolat takes place in the picturesque, fictional village of Lansquenet Sous Tannes in France. Vianne and her young daughter Anouk arrive with the wind on the day of the annual carnival. To their surprise, something about Lansquenet whispers at them to stay. They rent a tiny shop in the square, opposite the village’s only church, and set about turning it into a chocolaterie.
Vianne is a novelty in the quiet, conservative village. Bright and breezy (and apparently unmarried) she is an object of suspicion. But eventually the villagers find they are drawn to her natural warmth and her shop that catches the eye and beckons with devious temptation. Somehow, Vianne brings people together, reunites families and even makes them fall in love; her only weapon a cup of hot, spiced chocolat-chaud. Not to mention her uncanny gift for guessing her customers’ favourites, pin-pointing the one temptation that will prove too much to resist.
But not everyone is impressed. The pastor of the village church, the serious and pious Monsieur Reynaud, understands Vianne’s decision to open a chocolate shop just before the start of lent to be a declaration of war. Vianne and her shop become an obsession for Reyanud. In Vianne, he sees everything that is dangerous and blasphemous, everything he has pledged to resist.
The story (unlike the popular movie version) is told from both Vianne’s perspective and from Reyanud’s. It is an effective way of making Reynaud three dimensional, revealing him to be a rather pitiable man, consumed by self-loathing and fear. Reynaud is racked with indecision, guilt and jealousy as he watches Vianne lead his obedient flock astray, even befriending a group of travellers or “river-rats”. His hatred is ugly and sad but also increasingly dangerous.
To say I love this story is an understatement. Chocolat is a sumptuous novel, lavish with mouth-watering description (best consumed, I have learnt, with chocolate nearby — but then isn’t everything?). Harris tells a simple story that is rich with detail. From the flash of a red petticoat under a plain old skirt, to the titillating tips of the most dainty confectionary, around every corner of the story lives something pretty and sweet. The heroine is sensuous, wild and maternal in one measure; the perfect mouthful. And chocolate aside there are many other moments of sweetness to the story. As Anouk and Vianne make friends we learn more about the inhabitants of the village, their quiet trials and tribulations. Best of all is Armande, a cantankerous old lady who, in defiance of her interfering daughter, vows to see out the rest of her life in style and rebellious luxury. This sweetness is tempered by Reyanud’s terrible bitterness and the destructive influences of other members of the village.
As I mentioned, the magic in this story is gentle — just a little nudge here and there (in fact, there are two sequels to Chocolat in which Vianne’s magic is more openly acknowledged, but I prefer this more subtle approach). Vianne’s magic is tied up in chocolate, it is magic of the home, but powerful for all that. The reader is also treated to glimpses of Vianne’s past and hints of her mother’s influence in a battered pack of tarot cards hidden under the bed. There is a love story too, and a good one, though it is less of a focus in the book than the movie (in which the love interest is played by Johnny Depp — just in case anyone’s interested).
I recommend Chocolat to anyone and everyone and certainly to anyone with a sweet tooth and a penchant for warm characters and love stories. It is so much more than its simple premise and, putting my objective hat to one side (which I confess I did the moment I began), is one of my all-time favourites.