Lent is the season of self-denial. In the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, Father Reynaud expects his congregation to observe Lent in the traditional way, by giving up an indulgence. As part of the tradition, the town celebrates with a carnival on a windy Shrove Tuesday. Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk arrive during the carnival. Anouk begs to stay. Against her better judgement, for she has noticed the disapproving priest at the end of the carnival parade, Vianne agrees.
Vianne is, perhaps, a witch. Certainly her mother claimed to be one, and her daughter Anouk is abnormally intuitive. Vianne leases the old bakery opposite the church and opens La Celeste Praline – a chocolate shop – on St Valentine’s day. Her magic is small, domestic, her spells combinations of chocolate, cream and liqueurs. “There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking: in the choosing of ingredients, the process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing and flavouring, the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional utensils – the pestle and mortar with which my mother made her incense turned to a more homely purpose, her spices and aromatics giving up their subtleties to a baser, more sensual magic.” Vianne seldom reads her mother’s Tarot cards, but when customers come into the shop, even on a first visit, she always knows their favourites.
She befriends the village outcasts, the river gypsies, an abused wife, headstrong and lonely old people, and encourages them to live their own lives. In doing so she infuriates Father Reynaud. The members of his congregation eating chocolate and attending parties, during Lent, are to him parts of “…the remaining pagan traditions…how we preached and cajoled. The egg, the hare, still-living symbols of the tenacious root of paganism, exposed for what they are.” As Vianne and the townspeople indulge, the priest becomes ever more austere, further reducing his Lenten diet until, like Vianne, Father Reynaud has visions. When their visions collide, only one can triumph.
The story unfolds with a sense of mystery that intrigues the reader. Why must Anouk be reminded to speak French? Why does Vianne keep moving from town to town? Each chapter starts with a month and day but there is a timeless quality to this battle of good and evil. When the priest talks of the drought year of ’75, which century is he referring to? One of the charms of the book is that the reader is not necessarily sure.
The main characters speak in alternating chapters. Father Reynaud talks to his only confident, an old priest completely incapacitated by a stroke. Reynaud’s isolation and loneliness are clear in these monologues, particularly when contrasted with Vianne’s chapters, which are filled with conversations and confections.
And what confections they are! Chocolat is not a book for a dieter to read. The sensual descriptions of the sweets – candied rose petals, florentines, Venus’s nipples – and the drinks, all chocolate-based with creamy liqueurs, make the reader long to be in the warm café on the blustery March days. If you don’t rush out to buy chocolate while reading the book, it is only because the real thing won’t live up to the writing.
In this battle of good and evil, the reader’s sympathy is with Vianne…and yet…is it possible to know people so well in such a short time? Why are the townsfolk compelled to share such private parts of their lives with her? The priest is almost a cartoon villain, with no redeeming qualities, one weakness of this intriguing, well-written story. As the wind changes, and the villagers celebrate Easter Sunday, another transformation is in the air. Magic realism or real magic? Perhaps the two main characters are nothing more than folktales. It may be best to remember that ''People who know nothing of real magic imagine it to be a flamboyant process. And yet the real business is very undramatic; simply the focusing of the mind toward a desired objective. There are no miracles, no sudden apparitions.'' This could also be a recipe for writing a wonderful novel, and one that Ms Harris has followed very well.