I take another, from a tray marked Peche au miel millefleurs. A slice of peach steeped in honey and eau-de-vie, a crystallized peach sliver on the chocolate lid. From “Chocolat” by Joanne Harris. Quote formatting from Bryton Taylor’s Food in Literature blog and her article, The 154 Foods from “Chocolat”
“Chocolat” is a novel full of delights and mysteries. Joanne Harris hangs all that luscious chocolate shop description and daily French life onto a very elemental desire: the need to survive. Vianne, the main character, wants to stop drifting and make a home for herself and her daughter for the first time in her life. The priest of the village also wants to survive. He sees the enticements of the chocolate shop as a threat to the stern, denying, spartan way of life that he stands for. These two characters are pitted against each other throughout the book. Yes, there are romantic river gypsies, rich hot chocolate drinks with swirls of Kahlua, magic winds and fabulous celebrations, but it all works due to the strong groundwork of the characters and plot.
“And in the middle she has built a magnificent centrepiece. A gingerbread house, walls of chocolate-coated pain d’epices with the detail piped on in silver and gold icing, roof tiles of florentines studded with crystallized fruits, strange vines of icing and chocolate growing up the walls, marzipan birds singing in chocolate trees… And the witch herself, dark chocolate from the top of her pointed hat to the hem of her long cloak, half astride a broomstick which is in reality a giant guimauve, the long twisted marshmallows that dangle from the stalls of sweet-vendors on carnival days.”
“Chocolat” incorporates the classic plot of “a stranger comes to town.” Vianne comes to town and the town must decide if they will welcome her. She is different than them. Her clothes are colorful, she is not married, she has a child, and she has strange customs. Luckily, she also has mouth-wateringly good chocolate and an uncanny ability to know exactly what each customer most wishes to sample. Her magic comes from this “sight” into people’s hearts. While she uses and is familiar with pagan charms, tarot and holidays, her true gift is the way she chooses to act out of love instead of fear.
This book has as many layers as the chocolate gateau Vianne serves. You have the over-arching plot of “stranger comes to town.” But when we zoom closer, we see that Vianne’s internal struggle is about overcoming the fear she has that staying in one place means she will be caught by what she calls, “the man in the black hat” who stands in for her as the authority, and her greatest fear, that the authorities will take away her daughter. She fights herself and the world view she has learned from her mother in these internal moments. She must learn to trust her own world view or be on the run forever. She must learn to let her mother go. This is the trouble I have in structuring my own story. The internal story seems like the only story. I’m so grateful to see how Joanne Harris puts the two stories together.
A suggestion I’ve read is to make the antagonist and protagonist two halves of a whole. Vianne’s theme is….“I believe that being happy is the only important thing. Happiness. Simple as a glass of chocolate or torturous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.” So when a woman in town is being beaten by her husband, she takes action and brings the woman into her own home. The priest has seen the problem and laments about it, but does nothing. He is more likely to use the husband’s anger to make problems. To be fair, the priest also has an internal battle and we sympathize while hoping he will overcome his false beliefs. The theme of the book is shown through both character’s actions.
“I select a dark nugget from a tray marked Eastern journey. Crystallized ginger in a hard sugar shell, releasing a mouthful of liqueur like a concentration of spices, a breath of aromatic air where sandalwood and cinnamon and lime vie for attention with cedar and allspice.”
Another clever touch is that each chapter is a day from February (Shrove Tuesday) to the end of March (Easter Monday) so you can see about where things take place by looking at the dates. There is also a wise magical mentor figure that teaches Vianne both about dying and about what makes a good life. Vianne has to learn the lesson this woman teaches her, before she has the internal knowledge to make the right decision about her own future.
I’m sure I haven’t learned all the neat tricks in this book. There are also further books set in this village that I want to read. A viewing of the movie (the movie plot differing from the novel with a stronger Hollywood influence) complete with a ample box of French chocolates, champagne, friends and a deck of tarot cards would make a very fun evening.
“Chocolat,” the novel, is not wrapped up as masterfully as it starts, but like the wind that carried Vianne into town, the beautiful descriptions and characterizations carry the reader straight through to the end of the story.