This is a fabulous book. I saw the film a few years ago (so I’ve forgotten the details) and loved that and amazingly the book is even better. I think for me that’s the right sequence of events if I’m going to see the film of a book at all – see the film, then read the book.
Simply told it’s a story about Vianne Rocher who arrives in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a place that is” no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux” on Shrove Tuesday. She takes over the old bakery and transforms it into La Celeste Praline Chocolaterie Artisanale – in other words the most enticing, the most delicious and sensuous Chocolaterie, selling not only all sorts and types of chocolate treats but delicious chocolate drinks. Together with Anouk her daughter with her imaginary friend Pantoufle the rabbit, she also transforms everyone’s life along the way.
The story is told alternately by Vianne and Francis Renauld, the Cure of the parish. Renauld regards Vianne as the devil opposing everything he believes in and viewing her chocolate as sinful temptations designed to lure people away from the church. This is particularly provoking for him as it is Lent and the church is opposite the shop, open on Sundays and his parishioners are succombing to the temptations of Vianne and her shop.
In the weeks before Easter Vianne plans a grand festival of chocolate to take place on Easter Sunday. This infuriates Renauld:
To rail against a children’s celebration is to court ridicule. Already Narcisse has been heard to refer to my brigade anti-chocolat, amidst disloyal sniggering. But it rankles. That she should use the Church’s celebration to undermine the church – to undermine me. I dare not go further than this. And every day her influence spreads. Part of it is the shop itself. Half-cafe, half confisierie, it projects its air of cosiness, of confidences. Children love the chocolate shapes at pocket-money prices. Adults enjoy the atmosphere of subtle naughtiness, of secrets whispered, grievances aired. Several families have begun to order a chocolate cake for lunch every sunday; I watch them as they collect the beribboned boxes after Mass. The inhabitants of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes have never eaten as much chocolate. Yesterday Denise Arnauld was eating – eating! – in the confessional. I could smell it on her breath, but I had to maintain anonymity.
As the story progresses it becomes clear that Renauld has more than just a problem with Vianne. He is convinced of his own unworthiness and increases his Lenten fast in an attempt to cleanse himself. There is also something in his past which bothers him enormously. And he is not the only person in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes who has problems. Amongst others, there are Josephine, whose husband beats her up, Armande a diabetic in her eighties, whose snobbish daughter Caroline prevents her son from having any contact with her, and Guillaume a lonely old man struggling with the death of his dog, Charly. Vianne herself is fleeing from the ‘Black Man’, just like her mother did before she died. Into this mix of characters come the river gypsies and Roux causing even more angst for Renauld.
So, this book covers an enormous range of topics – fear of the outsider, prejudice against “these people” – immigrants, vagrants, and gypsies; bigotry; fear of death, old age and illness; and fear that the Church will lose its purity and that the community will be corrupted by liberal and heretic beliefs. It’s also about how so many lives intersect and interact and above all about the importance of love and understanding in everyone’s life.
Of course it’s also about food, and not just chocolate, although there are many descriptive passages extolling chocolate. The food at the party to celebrate Armande’s birthday includes:
Soupe de tomates a la gasconne, served with fresh basil and a slice of tartelette meridonle, made on biscuit-thin pate brisee and lush with the flavours of olive oil and anchovy and the rich local tomatoes garnished with olives and roasted slowly to produce a concentration of flavours which seems almost impossible. … vol-au-vents, light as a puff of summer air, then elderflower sorbet followed by plateau de fruits de mer with grilled langoustines, grey shrimps, prawns, oysters, berniques, spider-crabs … and a giant black lobster, regal on its bed of seaweed. … The dessert is a chocolate fondue … and dark-and-white- chocolate roulade bicolore. … We round off the meal with my own chocolate ice-cream, truffles and coffee in tiny demi-tasses, with a calvados chaser, drunk from a hot cup like an explosion of flowers.”
I judge a book by my desire to re-read it and to read more by the same author. This book passes both tests. I will have to re-read it to fully appreciate all its many layers and I already have The Lollipop Shoes waiting for me on my bookshelves. I believe it’s a sequel to Chocolat.