Joanne Harris,
Chocolat
(Penguin, 1999)

For hundreds of years, the sleepy French village of Lansquenet has been content to wrap itself in the gauzy layers of tradition, cocooning itself against the influences of the modern world. Then Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk, the heroines of Joanne Harris's new novel Chocolat, breeze into town on the changing wind, and Lansquenet will never be the same again.

It's not just that Vianne is beautiful and carefree, or that her shop, La Celeste Praline, brings a touch of luxury and a splash of color to the town; there's something more to Vianne that draws customers -- especially the village outsiders -- to her. Perhaps it's the fact that she knows their favorite sweets without asking, or possibly the way she can pull their deepest wishes and fears from them with just the slightest touch. Whatever it is, Vianne's appearance changes the town, for better and for worse. Vianne, too, feels the change, even though change has dictated her entire life; this time its impact will be more than she ever suspected.

In the style of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's The Mistress of Spices, Harris creates an enchanting novel about desire and human nature. By examining the villagers' deepest needs through Vianne's magical abilities, Harris reveals the things that drive us to make choices. Harris also delves deep into relationships among people, both family and friends. Some of the most moving passages of the entire novel focus on Vianne's love for her daughter, her "little stranger;" the intensity of these feelings awakened pangs of familiarity in my chest and brought tears to my eyes.

Chocolat moves along nicely, focusing on small events to create tone and mood. Vianne's Easter chocolate festival and her personal battle with local cure Francis Reynaud provide points of major conflicts. Harris deftly balances these events with the everyday events of the novel and Vianne's memories of her life with her mother; the result is the feeling that we are presented with the entire story of a particular time in a person's life, both the important and the insignificant.

One of the best aspects of this novel is Harris' ability to evoke the customs and lifestyles of a quaint French village with authenticity. Throughout the entire novel, I kept forgetting that it was set in modern times; Harris' word choice and descriptions accurately and poetically combine to create a "time-warp" effect. And for you chocolate lovers, her descriptions of the chocolates in Vianne's shop are enough to make your mouth water!

Chocolat is a delicious little novel, full of many flavors; Joanne Harris has created a beautiful, moving story that you shouldn't pass over.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]



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