“Try me. Test me. Taste me.” The whispered words of temptation that haunt priest Reynaud may as well be directed to the reader. Chocolat is like the treat it is named for: sweet, nostalgic, and nearly universally appealing with subtle aromas and notes of complexity for those who care to linger and look more closely.
Written from two perspectives, Chocolat details the clash between the two main characters of the small French village of Lansquenet: stony local priest Reynaud and free-spirited and unapologetic newcomer Vianne Rocher (whose last name may or may not be a nod to my favorite chocolate, Ferrero Rocher).
Vianne and her young daughter Anouk are gypsies who live the way Vianne and her mother did, going wherever the wind takes them. After years of travel, they both begin to long for a more stable home. On the first day of Lent, they settle into conservative Lansquenet and convert a dilapidated bakery into an alluring new chocolate shop.
A staunch advocate of self-denial, Reynaud grows increasingly disturbed by their presence as Vianne gently sways the villagers into abandoning their Lenten vows with their favorite concoctions, which she magically intuits about each customer. Witch or not, Vianne has a knack for magic inherited from her gypsy mother that she prefers to wield in the ordinary miracles she conjures: “My mother would have laughed at this waste of my skills, but I have no desire to probe farther into their lives than this.” While she doesn’t want “their secrets or their innermost thoughts,” “their fears or gratitude,” she delights in providing the people of Lansquenet with the simple yet potent pleasure of their favorite sweets: “I can read their eyes, their mouths so easily—this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet-smiling one the soft-centered apricot hearts; this girl with the windblown hair will love the mendiants [Vianne’s own favorite]; this brisk cheery woman the chocolate brazils.” While Reynaud and his few closest followers—including the gossipy and pretentious Caroline Clairmont—lament Vianne’s influence on Lansquenet, many inhabitants of the quiet village are changed by Vianne for the better. A battered woman gathers the courage to leave her alcoholic husband, river gypsies find welcome rather than scorn, and an elderly woman begins life anew.
Tensions culminate in a dramatic, comic, and triumphant climax on Easter, the day of Vianne’s lavish chocolate festival. It leaves a sweet finish that, while perhaps somewhat predictable, leaves us full and satisfied.
Joanne Harris’ novel was brought to life in the 2000 Oscar-nominated film starring Juliet Binoche as Vianne. The film brings the already sensuous novel to vibrant life and Binoche provides a winning performance as Vianne, but it does lack some of the nuances Harris so deftly melds in her novel. For example, the book portrays Reynaud much more sympathetically, addressing his fears, doubts, and past, while the film presents him as a one-dimensional villain. The novel delves into themes of motherhood, fate, and mortality that the movie, emphasizing the dramatic showdown between self-denial and temptation, neglects. Still, the cinematic version provides a glossy finish that is sheer fun. I recommend savoring the novel at your leisure—perhaps with a steaming mug of drinking chocolate in hand—before capping off the experience with a viewing of the film.
Joanne Harris was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
Since then, she has written 14 more novels, two collections of short stories, and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science.