Originally published as Peaches for Monsieur le Curé and later released as Peaches for Father Francis, Joanne Harris takes readers back to Lansquenet, the quaint French village they were first introduced to in Chocolat.
The novel begins in Paris. Vianne, Roux, Anouk, and Rosette are living on a boat moored along the Seine. Though space is tight, Roux’s new boat has a small area for Vianne to make and sell chocolates, while Anouk continues to go to school. Rosette, still speechless but fluent in sign language, stays with Roux all day instead of attending school. But then a letter arrives from Luc Clairmont, the grandson of Vianne’s friend Armande (played by Judi Dench in the film). It’s been eight years since Armande’s death, yet Luc has been instructed to give Vianne a letter from his grandma upon his twenty-first birthday.
The letter states that Vianne is to return to Lansquenet, take care of Armande’s peach tree so the fruit doesn’t go to waste, and to help someone in the village who will need it. Vianne wants to return; Roux refuses to go. Vianne and her daughters pack up and travel back the village they have not visited in so long, only to find that much has changed. Father Francis Raynaud has been replaced by another priest because he’s under suspicion of arson. Josephine has a son, which Vianne didn’t know about and Roux never mentioned despite living in Lansquenet for four years before finding Vianne in Paris. And the biggest change: the abandoned half of the village along the river is now populated buy hundreds of Muslim people.
The book begins on the first day of Ramadan in 2010, and ends on the last day of Ramadan. I love that Harris always chooses a holiday season (Easter, Halloween through Christmas, now Ramadan) to shape the plot. Before Vianne leaves Paris, she notes that she more frequently sees women wearing the hijab. Lansquenet, traditionally Catholic, surprises her with its new residents. Having spend six months with her mother in Tangier, Vianne knows Ramadan traditions and dress enough to not only not be surprised, but be more sensitive than other villagers.
That’s not to say the book is shaped by a war of religions right from the start. In fact, Luc’s busy-body mother (played by Carrie-Anne Moss in the movie) hosts morning coffee with people from both sides of the Tannes river to encourage cultural mingling and demonstrate how open-minded she is. Francis Raynaud, although always annoyed with change, doesn’t try to run the newcomers off like he typically does. But one woman thwarts all the Catholic villagers’ efforts to be neighborly: Ines Bencharski, a latecomer to the Muslim community, who wears a niqab and opens an all-girls school right in Vianne’s old chocolaterie. The school Francies Raynaud is accused of lighting on fire. Ines has a mysterious connection to the most handsome Muslim man in the community, so much that her relationship with him incites jealousy, criminal activity, and an attempted suicide. The old Imam worries Ines is a bad influence when other women start wearing the niqab, too. It’s not just her differences. Unfriendly and frequently mute, Ines’s presence in Lansquenet creates a rift between the generations of Catholics and the Muslims who have been in the village only a few years.
While Chocolat was a light read and The Girl with No Shadow was more menacing, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé reads like a mystery. Vianne attempts to figure out who Armande meant when she wrote that someone would need help, she tries to learn Ines’s secrets, she investigates the fire in an effort to clear Francis’s name, and it’s implied that Josephine’s son — whose birthday is days apart from Rosette’s — is Roux’s child. Although I was glad Harris tried something new to keep the Vianne books fresh, I did grow exhausted with how many questions Vianne asked in her narration. When a character has too many questions, I feel like the writer had ideas and wants me to do the mental lifting.
But it was still interesting to see how people had changed. Josephine even looks different, having rounded out a bit and cut her hair short and dyed it blond. While Father Francis Raynaud doesn’t become any more likable, the chapters he narrates have a dry humor and keen observation about why he hates the changes in Lansquenet. It has less to do with the new religious community and more with how his old church is being changed: chairs instead of pews, PowerPoint presentations — I half feared a Christian rock band would be next! I found myself liking the unlikable Francis more and wishing Vianne would stop getting into everything, like Luc’s mother.
When I discussed this novel with my book club, we agreed that it could be cheesy in places, but in that weird way where you don’t care, something I admit to criticizing in fiction but excusing in movies. But Harris’s Peaches for Monsieur le Curé was cinematic in many ways. I told my book club that at one point the novel felt like the last scene in the film Titanic, when Rose and Jack go down the stairs of the ship and all their dead friends are there. That being said, I’m still excited to read the last novel in the series, to see Rosette and Anouk grow, to examine how Vianne and Roux’s relationship does or doesn’t develop, and to get back to chocolate-making, which there definitely was not enough of in this book! A weird addition to the story that I still read excitedly.