Chocolat begins with the exotic Vianne Rocher arriving on the wind in a small village in rural France, Lansquenet. Before long she has opened a chocolate boutique which sees the start of a battle with the local priest, Father Reynaud, trying to make his parishoners observe the rituals of Lent by denouncing the newcomer and her sinful confections. Who will win the war between church and chocolate?
I first read this book when it was published in 1999, and I’ve just read it again, as I wanted to remind myself of the story before reading the sequel The Lollipop Shoes, and I’ve seen the film adaptation too many times to remember what the original story was (as the film is a very different story from the book). The story feels like a fairy tale for adults, with the mysterious, mystical Vianne, with her talent for being able to tell what everyone’s favourite chocolate is, up against the religious, righteous Father Reynaud, with his own secrets of the past which have made him the overzealous, overbearing representative of the church.
I love the characters of this book, who are all believable, each with their own idiosyncrasies and faults, and who all contribute to the story. What I also like about Vianne is the ambiguity of her magical abilities. Can she really perform magic? I’m not so sure. I think it’s more about the situation and intuition and coincidence, but the alchemy of making perfect chocolates and confection is beguiling.
The story is supposed to have been contemporary at the time, and yet the village has an out of period quality about it, and I think that’s why the filmmakers decided to set it in the 1950s, allowing the correlation of the old-fashioned attitudes of the characters to a era of self-restraint and deference to the church. In fact, the period of the story is the only thing that I find slightly jarring in the book, as it doesn’t sit well with modern life, even in the small village location of rural France.
Overall, a very entertaining and indulgent read.
The Lollipop Shoes is the continuation of Vianne’s story, and after leaving Lansequenet, a few troubled moves later, has reinvented herself as Yanne, and settled into a quiet, invisible life in Montmatre, Paris. Her daughter, Anouk, is now Annie, and they have an addition to the family, Rosette, a second daughter for Yanne. When the bohemian Zozie arrives as a whirlwind, she’s everything that Anouk remembers her mother, Vianne Rocher, to be, and nothing like the woman, Yanne, she has become. But Zozie, also steals identities and lives, and has set her sights on the family for her next theft.
I started the book, with low expectations, as I have tried to read other Joanne Harris books since Chocolat but have never found them as satisfying, and had stopped bothering, but couldn’t resist trying The Lollipop Shoes and finding out more about the tale of Vianne Rocher. The opening chapters of the book were very good, and I was intrigued as to where the story was going, so I was pleasantly surprised. However, as I mentioned above, the thing I enjoyed about Chocolat was the ambiguity about the magic performed by Vianne, but in The Lollipop Shoes there was no question about it – the characters were performing spells and incantations. I did enjoy the gradually emerging story of what had happened to Vianne and Anouk in the intervening years, but by the end of the book, the story became too fantastical for my liking, and wasn’t worthy of the characters. I was also disappointed by the ensemble of characters, who weren’t really necessary, and weren’t as well drawn as those of Chocolat.
I did manage to at least read to the end of the book, but an unsatisfying conclusion meant I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much as Chocolat.