Vianne Rocher and her daughter, Anouk, arrive at Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a quaint French village with around 200 people. The chapter title tells us it is February 11th, Shrove Tuesday — the day before Ash Wednesday, which in the Christian faith is the start of Lent, a time of penance, self-denial, and prayer leading up to Easter. Lansquenet is a village of mostly Christian people, and Father Raynaud sees himself as judge, jury, and shepherd of the inhabitants. Vianne and Anouk are not Christians. In fact, they both have witchy tendencies that include reading Tarot cards, warding signs, and seeing into people’s hearts/minds. Vianne admits her abilities mean, “. . .moving on when the wind changes, seeing futures in the turn of a card, our lives a permanent fugue. . . .”
A nomad all her life, Vianne continues the tradition of relocating whenever the wind beckons, but Anouk wishes to stay in Lansquenet. Vianne was in Anouk’s shoes when she was a girl, but can she ignore the call of the wind? Vianne sets up a chocolaterie, which Father Raynaud feels is an offence against God, and, more importantly, him, tempting the villagers with delicious treats and friendly conversation that validates their concerns kept secret from the wrathful priest.
Joanne Harris’s novel Chocolat is beautifully organized, starting on February 11th and ending on March 30th (Easter Sunday). Knowing the timeline emphasizes Vianne’s “heathen” presence during a holy time, made clearer when she teaches village children pagan stories that the children love, who then in turn encourage Vianne to organize a chocolate festival with vendors, candies, and music on Easter Sunday.
Food is such a big part of Chocolat, and the descriptions never let readers down. As she prepares for the festival, Harris treats readers to yummy descriptions of chocolate concoctions:
Nests of spun caramel with hard-shelled sugar eggs are each topped with a triumphantly plump chocolate hen; piebald rabbits heavy with gilded almonds stand in rows, read to be wrapped and boxed; marzipan creatures march across the shelves. The smells of vanilla essence and cognac and caramelized apple and bitter chocolate fill the house.
A novel set in France of course has French treats, and Harris doesn’t shy from using French names. You may find yourself Googling translations, or you can do like me and take an educated guess at what “cerisette russe” and “pêche au miel millefleurs” are (hint: I have little clue, but that’s okay). The language confirms the setting of the chocolaterie: small, magical, charming.
The tension doesn’t only derive from Vianne’s opposition to Christianity and occupation irritating Father Raynaud. The priest has his own odd history, which readers piece together as he speaks to the previous village priest, who has been in a coma for years. Harris switches off the narrator: Vianne one chapter, simple first-person point of view. Then, we get Father Raynaud speaking to the old priest, his mentor, also in first-person but clearly different in tone. The two perspectives work beautifully, letting readers into the hearts and history of Lansquenet. For instance, Raynaud reveals a time when strange river people docked in Lansquenet looking for work, and how his mentor rid the village of such “undesirables.” Harris cleverly holds back how the river people were chased away. But new river people arrive after Vianne, led by the stubborn Roux, and it’s déjà vu for the agonized Raynaud losing control over his congregation to outsiders:
For a time we were pure. But with [Vianne] the purge must begin anew. This is a stronger strain, defying once again. And my flock, my stupid, trustful flock, turning to her, listening to her . . .
Vianne, along with a village octogenarian who is also witchy and a “heathen,” invites Roux and his friends into the village by providing them with honest work and friendship. The village divides: will they be neighborly, or will they run off anyone who isn’t a good, respectable, non-chocolate-eating Christian? As people find comfort in Vianne’s non-judgmental presence, a division of citizens ratchets up the tension as Easter Sunday approaches.
Throughout Chocolat, readers are treated to many threads: love, motherhood, outsiders, mystery, death, religion, magical realism. The way Harris handles each so delicately makes the novel a treat to read, one in which you can immerse yourself and forget your surroundings. The ending gives you hints as to whether Vianne and Anouk will stay in Lansquenet and continue running their chocolaterie or leave with the changing wind. You can stop there and be happy. Or, something exciting I learned not long ago, there are more books in the “Vianne Rocher” series. My mom and I will continue reading them for our book club. What fun!