Published in 2019, The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris is the last book in the Vianne Rocher (a.k.a. Chocolat) book series. Again, there is a time jump from the previous novel. Vianne Rocher now lives permanently in Lansquenet. She has a chocolate shop again and her daughter Rosette, who is now sixteen. Anouk is twenty-one and has left Lansquenet to move back to Paris to date the boy she met in The Girl With No Shadow. Roux, who is still with Vianne romantically, mostly lives on his river boat instead of with Vianne. Apparently, settling into a permanent home in a quaint French village does not spell family bliss.
The novel begins with the local florist, Narcisse, passing away. He’s been a character since the first novel, but never one we knew well. He hired travelling river people against village wishes, he didn’t go to church, and mostly kept to himself. That is, until his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson moved in because he was getting older. That’s what they say, anyway. It seems more like they’re waiting for him to die so they can find out what’s in his will.
A few years before Narcisse died, he found Rosette, a teen, still mute, still childish for her age, playing in his strawberry field around an old well. After he shouts at her and she runs away, the normally introverted old man locates Rosette hiding in Vianne’s chocolate shop and apologizes; he was worried she would fall in the well and be hurt.
Upon Narcisse’s death, the local priest, Father Reynaud, learns that he is the executor of Narcisse’s will. The men never cared for each other due to differences of opinion about Christianity. But Narcisse’s children are eager to learn what they’re getting, so Reynaud opens the will only to discover the family have been left Narcisse’s farm house, but not his field on which lucrative timber grows. That forest — and the old well and strawberry patch — have been left to Rosette, surprising everyone.
Joanne Harris has three narrators, sticking to a technique she used in the previous books. Father Reynaud and Vianne are narrators again, but for the first time Rosette gets to tell the story from her point of view. Mostly, we’ve watched her use sign language and gestures, drawings and magic. But now we know what she thinks, adding something new to the series. As a fourth narrator (of sorts) is Narcisse’s will, which includes a story he wrote that is for Reynaud’s Eyes Only! In it, he tells what happened to his sister, Mimi, a girl much like Rosette. Although I loved the story of little Mimi and Narcisse as a boy, fully engaged by how they navigated absent parents and a draconian aunt, I wasn’t pleased that Reynaud only saw himself in the story. A secret Narcisse has hidden his whole life causes Reynaud to reflect on a secret he’s always kept, but it’s one we learned about in Chocolat. There were no surprises or tension as a result, especially given the forgivable circumstances of Reynaud’s wrongdoing.
Another aspect of The Strawberry Thief that felt too familiar was the story of a newcomer who opens a store and the village of Lansquenet goes nuts. Citizens become busy bodies, condeming the shop and unable to resist it — just like Vianne’s chocolate shop when she first arrived sixteen years ago. Except this time, instead of the newcomer bearing chocolates, it’s Morgane and her tattooing gun. That’s right; a tattoo shop opens in a village that seems frozen in time. Even Vianne curses the newbie, arguing that Father Reynaud should chase Morgane out of town. Failing to realize the parallels to her own journey, Vianne ends up seeming obtuse and out of character.
To be fair, Joanne Harris suggests Morgane is the reinvented villainess from The Girl With No Shadow, but it’s hard to know what to believe. Rosette is attracted to Morgane without fear, possibly because Morgane is obviously a witch, too, one who doesn’t hide from society. Perhaps that is what Vianne fears: that her daughter will prove she is able to care for herself without her mother by turning to other people and building a community.
At its heart, The Strawberry Thief is about families and separation. Vianne is grateful, and other Christian mothers are jealous, that based on Rosette’s behavior and muteness, Rosette will never “abandon” her mom when she grows up. Oddly, the Muslim mothers of Lansqunet never talk with Vianne about the pains of their children leaving. In fact, they play such a small role in this novel after being the focus of Peaches for Monsieur le Curé that it’s almost like they were neglected by their author. I was a bit disappointed by how easily and in what manner Rosette convinces the village she is capable of independence. In fact, I was reminded of Jessica White’s point in the memoir Hearing Maud about conformity equaling normality.
Overall, my least favorite of the series, so I am glad there are no more. It was hard to tell if Vianne changed because she aged, or if Joanne Harris slowly unlearned her character. If you’re interested in reading these novels, know this: you can happily stop after any book, but if you keep going, you must read them in order and not skip around.
The Vianne Rocher/Chocolat series: