I absolutely adore reading - my love for books has had a huge impact on my life! I'm going to grad school to be a children's/YA librarian.
Chocolat begins with the arrival in a tiny French village of Vianne Rocher, a single mother with a young daughter, on Shrove Tuesday. As the inhabitants of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes clear away the remains of the carnival which heralds the beginning of Lent, Vianne moves with her daughter into a disused bakery facing the church, where Francis Reynaud, the young and opinionated curé of the parish, watches her arrival with disapproval and suspicion.
When he realizes that Vianne intends to open a chocolate shop in place of the old bakery, thereby tempting the churchgoers to over-indulgence, Reynaud’s disapproval increases.
As it becomes clear that the villagers of Lansquenet are falling under the spell of Vianne’s easy ways and unorthodox opinions, to the detriment of his own authority, he is quick to see her as a danger. Under Vianne’s influence an old woman embraces a new life, a battered wife finds the courage to leave her husband, children rebel against authority, outcasts and strays are welcomed… and Reynaud’s tight and carefully ordered community is in danger of breaking apart. As Easter approaches, both parties throw themselves whole-heartedly into the preparations; Vianne for the chocolate festival she plans to hold on Easter Sunday, Reynaud into a desperate attempt to win back his straying flock. Both factions have a great deal at stake; the village is bitterly divided; and as the big day looms closer their struggle becomes much more than a conflict between church and chocolate – it becomes an exorcism of the past, a declaration of independence, a showdown between dogma and understanding, pleasure and self-denial.(source)
Chocolat is a sweet story that I just finished reading in preparation for my book club's read of it in August (I'm leading the discussion of it). My mom had mentioned it to me a few times and encouraged me to give it a try. I'm glad that I did - this is a cute story and it was nice to travel through literature to a small town in France for a bit and wish I could taste the delicious chocolate that Vianne Rocher sells in her chocolaterie.
However, I'm very much on the fence about this book. There were some parts of it that I really enjoyed. The characters were beautifully crafted. I adored Vianne's little daughter, Anouk - she was adorable. I loved getting to know the villagers, from spunky Armande and skittish Josephine to the bitchy Caro. As for Reynaud, he made the perfect corrupt and despicable clergyman, reminding me of the Camerlengo from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. I also really liked how Harris mixed serious issues into her story, such as the complexities of mother/daughter relationships and the prejudice faced by the gypsies. This prejudice reminded me in many ways of the difficulties faced by immigrants in my own country, the United States. And of course, reading descriptions of Vianne's chocolate was absolutely delectable.
Even with all of these good things, there were other aspects of the book that I felt could have been much better carried out. I think the most prominent of these for me was that I never really felt like I connected with Vianne, even though she was one of the narrators of the story. In contrast to all of the other vibrant characters in the story, she felt bland, more like a tool used to introduce us to everyone else than the main character of the story. Another aspect that frustrated me was that the details of her magical abilities felt underdeveloped. I realize that this book is not meant to be like Harry Potter, where magic is a HUGE part of the essence of the story, but it felt almost like an afterthought to me. When this is a book categorized in the magical realism / fantasy genres, that frustrated me.
Overall, I'd have to give this book 3 out of 5 stars. I liked it, and there were parts of it that were well-executed. But ultimately, it didn't click for me - I really think that the biggest reason for this was that I didn't connect with Vianne. This book was okay, but not one that I think I'll be revisiting. The French touches were charming, however, and this was a nice diversion from daily life.