Book: Chocolat by Joanne Harris (1999)
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: In the bath, with candles, or some other sort of lighting that’s ambient, but bright enough to read by.
Reading Accoutrements: Chocolate, of course. I’ve recently discovered a lovely cake ball booth at my local farmer’s market, but any chocolate of your choice will work.
Content Notes: Abuse, Violence, Racism, Classism, Small Town Religious Prejudice
About a month or so ago, I was on Twitter and I saw a release announcement for a book that I soon realized was a sequel to Chocolat. Well, it’s actually the fourth in the series, but I didn’t even know that there was a series – I was only vaguely aware of the book. Yes, my only real exposure to Chocolat had been the 2000 Rom-Com.
I didn’t have a strong desire to re-watch the movie, but I was interested in reading the book. I really liked the main character from the film, and the French village setting, so I figured that if the first book was good, it’d be fun to check out the rest of the series.
Chocolat is set in the village of Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes. Though this village is fictional, the rest of the world is very similar to our own. Vianne, our protagonist, has spent her life drifting from city to city, first as a child with her mother, and now traveling with her six-year-old daughter, Anouk. The cities she recalls visiting are all familiar – Nice, New York, Cannes, London, Paris, etc. I’m guessing the reason Harris chose to set her novel in a fictional village is that with a town that small, you’d have people claiming you were writing about them.
Vianne and Anouk move into an old bakery and transform it into a chocolate shop. Vianne has the ability to see or know certain things about people, which she mostly utilizes to determine people’s favorite sweets. The chocolate shop is located in the town square, directly across the street from the staunchly traditional church, which has just started the Lenten season. The priest fears that Vianne’s tempting chocolates and refusal to adhere to societal expectations – religious and otherwise – will lead his flock astray. He’s not completely wrong, since his idea of “astray” is people enjoying their lives and not living in constant fear of judgement. Vianne’s life philosophy is that the most important thing is to be happy. She is very generous, giving out treats to anyone who happens by her shop, whether she believes she can convert them into customers or not. She doesn’t worry about what people say she should do or how she should act. She doesn’t go to church because she doesn’t believe in God. She is open about the fact that she is an unwed mother. She doesn’t let people shame her, which, of course, offends a lot of the rigid small-town busybodies who get their power and kicks from shaming others.
I love Vianne as a character. She’s kind, self-aware, and consistently written. She’s very self-assured, but has a lot of worries about forcing her daughter to travel so much, and a lot of unresolved feelings about her mother, who used Tarot cards and other magical rituals that Vianne doesn’t completely embrace, though she acknowledges some spiritual aspects of the universe. Her mom also disapproved of her interest in cooking, which is Vianne’s main passion in life.
In Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes, Vianne starts to make friends. Her open manner attracts the people who others cast aside – an abused woman whose fears have led to compulsive behavior and unpopularity, an elderly man whose best friend is his ailing dog, and an 80-year-old woman whose relationship with her daughter is strained because she refuses to put on airs and “behave the way a woman of her age should.” Vianne mostly provides a listening ear and tells people that they have the means and right to do what they want in their lives. Vianne is very comfortable with change, being called by the wind from town to town.
One of the main reasons I briefly considered rewatching the movie was to see how it dealt with the prejudice against the nomadic water people, dubbed gypsies, though at least some of them are not Romani. The hatred that the villagers display simply because of prejudice is pretty disgusting. There’s blatant racism, classism and some general stereotyping. Strangers must be thieves, even though these people clean up after themselves and offer their services and patronage to the village businesses. Many of the townspeople are grossly comfortable with using violence to drive away anyone they don’t like, no matter how vague and unfounded the reasoning. In the book, I felt this was well-represented. The hatefulness was clearly shown as a negative, and it wasn’t brushed away or over-simplified. Since I decided not to rewatch the film, I don’t have a great recollection of how these issues were dealt with, but if I had much faith in the representation, I would have made this a book/movie comparison.
One thing that struck me about the writing was how Harris uses little details to build realistic characters and interactions. First of all, most of the book is told from Vianne’s perspective, but every few chapters, we get to see things from the priest’s point of view. This was an amazing choice, because if we weren’t inside his head at times, his actions would seem outlandish and caricature-esque. The contrast between the priest’s perspective and Vianne’s is really well done. He refers to people mostly by their last names, in a somewhat formal manner, while Vianne refers to most people by their first names. This made me question who a couple people were at first, but it was cleared up quickly and easily. People also have nicknames that only some characters use, which is something I don’t see a ton in books. Usually, a character has one name, and if there are any variations, they only exist in very specific circumstances – parents, authority figures, etc. In Chocolat, the characters are referred to differently by multiple people, which makes them seem well-rounded, with decently fleshed out backstories and relationships.
I also like how Harris built connections between characters by their word choices. Vianne calls Anouk her little stranger, and when a traveling boatman named Roux becomes part of their lives, he refers to her the same way. This same language built an instant connection between them and showed how Roux and Vianne saw things in similar ways.
I also loved Vianne’s perspective on parenting – she sees Anouk as a human being deserving of respect. She lets her make her own informed decisions and roam pretty freely, while still taking necessary precautions to keep her safe. The way she speculates about “her little stranger” is really engaging and encourages reflection on kids and parenthood.
The abuse storyline I mentioned before was written really thoughtfully, too. The priest knows about the abuse and still prioritizes “the sanctity of marriage” over the livelihood of the abused woman. Since this has happened to women in multiple churches, I felt like it was a realistic portrayal. Vianne tells her she doesn’t have to keep putting up with it, but ultimately knows that the decision to leave has to come in it’s own time. She offers safety and support without taking away agency, which is super important in my mind, and a thing that I see brushed over in a lot of books. Lazy abuse storylines tend to focus on the shock factor of the violence and/or the inspiration/tragedy of the escape/lack thereof. Chocolat depicts how abuse is perpetuated and accepted, doesn’t glorify it, and doesn’t “solve” the abuse in a harmful way. The plot is used to shine light on the issue, the issue isn’t used just to advance the plot.
As for the overall reading experience, I’ll be honest, the first ten pages took me a while to get through. I kept trying to read this book when I was around people – at family events or on car rides where I theoretically could read. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to focus. But as soon as I was alone and able to dedicate a few hours to actually concentrate, this was a fun, breezy read. The tone is light-hearted, but intriguing. The book and movie are pretty similar, though the movie played up romance a lot more (dang Hollywood) and streamlined certain events. Honestly, I think some of the streamlining the movie did would have worked great in the book, too, which isn’t a thought I often have, even if I like the choices for the movie.
Overall though, the book (as per usual) is better, and if you liked the movie, or even just thought it was okay, I would definitely recommend checking out the book. The end of the book was a little open-ended, which makes sense, since there are three more in the series! There was one plot point at the very end I didn’t love that will definitely be part of future books, but I’m still willing to read at least the second book and see where it goes. Chocolat was published in 1999 and the fourth book just came out this year (2019), so I feel like Harris takes her time in crafting the stories she really wants to tell. The messaging mainly focuses around not being a close-minded dick, but has a lot of nuances, showing how people get stuck in the situations they do, and why people act how they act.
What’s the last book you discovered because of social media?