Monday, November 11, 2013

Tasty but not Scrumptious

Chocolat by Joanne Harris


When Vianne Rocher, her daughter Anouk (with Pantoufle - an imaginary rabbit) breeze into the small, religious, French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes with the intention of opening a chocolate shop during the holy time of Lent, you just know that there's going to be some problems. Since Vianne is a single mother, you can imagine that the least of her problems might be her tempting confections on the town's citizens, who are trying to deny their weak bodies. You see, Vianne believes in magic - not just the magic of delicious foods, but also in the magic of life itself, and that isn't going to go down well with the pious mayor of the town, Reynaud, whose championing of Christianity is the village's moral cornerstone.

Any book made into a movie must have something about it to make it special. And any book that makes its author famous has should be exceptional. Of course, there is always a danger when reading a book before you see the movie that the movie will be a disappointment. And sometimes the opposite is also true. In this case, the latter is was what happened.

Please understand there is nothing horribly wrong with this book. Harris' writing style is ultimately approachable and the text flows at a very comfortable pace. She neither uses overly flowery prose, nor does she go for anything too simplistic. She was one of the first writers to use "magical reality" and she innovated with injections of culinary passages into the text as well. These are both fascinating to read, and help the reader to escape from their hum-drum existence and become absorbed in unusual situations, despite Harris' asking us to suspend disbelief for some of the more fantastical things that happen.

The overall feel of her writing reminds me of a trickling, wandering brook. This can have its disadvantages, as we sometimes wish that the action in the book would pick up a bit in order to inject a touch of variety. This also means that her climaxes don't have as much of a punch as they could have. Moreover, this book seems to include more than one conflict, which means that each one needed to come to a head separately. This made the story a touch confusing and lessened the major focus.

To be more specific, first we have the problems of Vianne's opening her shop in this conservative town and the reaction of the priest Reynaud. Then we have an over-protective mother trying to keep her son away from his grandmother. We also have the barkeeper Muscat and his abuse of his mousey wife Josephine. Then there are Vianne's own personal problems, which stem from her relationship with her dead mother. Add to this the gypsies docking at the town's river, as well as a couple other things, and there's too much going on. Of course, some people find this makes the story more interesting, but I found it just made the novel bloated. Had Harris focused on just one or two of these conflicts, and left the others to be more minor sub-plots instead of giving them almost equal weight, the result would have been more concise and cohesive.

The other problem with this novel was the time the story is set. Harris's book is in a contemporary setting of the very late 20th century, while the movie sets it in the 1950s. The earlier setting of the movie works better than the later one in the book, mostly because it is harder to believe that even a very small town in France would still be fervently religious in the 1990s. However, we can better accept this taking place in the not-too-distant past. Of course, perhaps we could find a tiny town in France that would follow their priest with such blind loyalty, but it just doesn't seem likely.

On the other hand, Harris develops her characters very fully. Mind you, if you see the movie first, the faces of the actors that portrayed these characters may get into your head while you read this. Still, this isn't a drawback, and Hollywood didn't make many mistakes in casting this movie. What doesn't come out in the movie as well as it does in the book is Vianne's mother and her history, which actually gives the reader better insight into Vianne and her motivations than the film had time to allow. It is for this reason that I'm glad I read this book, despite the other drawbacks.

Overall, Chocolat is a very nice novel, but not Harris' best. Harris has definitely grown as a writer since she wrote this book, so if you want an introduction to her work, this might not be a bad place to start. However, if you saw and loved the movie, you could end up being disappointed. Despite this, the prose is lyrical with a gentle style; it has excellent character development, and; includes innovative mechanisms that edges away from realistic fiction and tickles the fantasy genre. The drawbacks are the incongruous era, too many sub-plots and too many conflicts, which lead to too many climaxes. For all this, while I will still recommend this book, I can only give it three out of five stars. 


"Chocolat" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (for other eBook reader formats), as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes, in print from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping) or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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