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Chocolat (Harris)

Chocolat 
Joanne Harris, 1999
Random House
320 pp.
ISBN-13: 978-0552998932


Summary
When the exotic stranger Vianne Rocher arrives in the old French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique called "La Celeste Praline" directly across the square from the church, Father Reynaud identifies her as a serious danger to his flock. It is the beginning of Lent: the traditional season of self-denial. The priest says she'll be out of business by Easter.

To make matters worse, Vianne does not go to church and has a penchant for superstition. Like her mother, she can read Tarot cards. But she begins to win over customers with her smiles, her intuition for everyone's favourites, and her delightful confections. Her shop provides a place, too, for secrets to be whispered, grievances aired. She begins to shake up the rigid morality of the community. Vianne's plans for an Easter Chocolate Festival divide the whole community. Can the solemnity of the Church compare with the pagan passion of a chocolate éclair?

For the first time, here is a novel in which chocolate enjoys its true importance, emerging as an agent of transformation. Rich, clever, and mischievous, reminiscent of a folk tale or fable, this is a triumphant read with a memorable character at its heart.

Says Harris: "You might see [Vianne] as an archetype or a mythical figure. I prefer to see her as the lone gunslinger who blows into the town, has a showdown with the man in the black hat, then moves on relentless. But on another level she is a perfectly real person with real insecurities and a very human desire for love and acceptance. Her qualities too—kindness, love, tolerance—are very human." Vianne and her young daughter Anouk, come into town on Shrove Tuesday. "Carnivals make us uneasy," says Harris, "because of what they represent: the residual memory of blood sacrifice (it is after all from the word "carne" that the term arises), of pagan celebration. And they represent a loss of inhibition; carnival time is a time at which almost anything is possible."

The book became an international best-seller, and was optioned to film quickly. The Oscar-nominated movie, with its star-studded cast including Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) and Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love), was directed by Lasse Hallstrom, whose previous film The Cider House Rules (based on a John Irving novel) also looks at issues of community and moral standards, though in a less lighthearted vein. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—July 3, 1964
Where—Barnsley, Yorkshire, England
Education—B.A. and M.A., Cambridge University, England
Currently—lives in Yorkshire, England


Joanne Harris, part French and part English, found the inspiration for her novel Chocolat in her own family history and folklore—herself having lived in a sweet-shop and being the great-granddaughter of a Frenchwoman known locally as a witch and a healer who once disguised herself as an apparition of the Virgin Mary to shock the local priest. Harris, who studied at St. Catharine's College in Cambridge where she received a BA and an MA in French and German, teaches French in an English school and lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and daughter. (From the publisher.)

More
I’m a chocoholic! I admit it! I eat it all the time. Almost on a daily basis…but not quite.” Joanne Harris starts the day with drinking chocolate made from milk and proper chocolate. “It’s a stimulant. A bit like coffee. But it tastes better to me.” She doesn’t diet because “I’m not a nice person if I’m doing things like that.”

Harris, who is half French, grew up in her grandparents’ corner sweetshop in Yorkshire, in the north of England. Her mother had just come over from France and didn’t speak English. Joanne grew up speaking French, and still speaks it with her own daughter at home. “Most of the family that I have contact with is French.... I’ve been more or less surrounded by French culture since I was born.” She associates chocolate with France, big family reunions and Easter parades. “A lot of members of my family ended up creeping into this story.”

She lives with her husband, small daughter and several cats in the small Yorkshire mining community of Barnsley where she grew up. Harris feels that small communities the world over have much in common, and Barnsley sometimes felt like Lansquenet in its suspicion of the outsider — “because we were a French family, because my mother moved to England without knowing any English and because we were always those funny people at end o’ t’road...." (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
Magic abounds in Harris' novel....The gods of legend may dine well in their celestial palaes, but the true sorcery of cooking cannot take plalce unless the cook and the guests are mortal. This paradox of the human condition is surely one of the messages of Harris' book.
Nancy Willard - The New York Times Book Review


Joanne Harris may have created the perfect diet book in her debut novel, Chocolat, a bittersweet confection that's light on plot but satisfying....The novel tries to be profound about life and death, but the pleasure comes from the food...delicious enough to satisfy any sweet tooth and spare you the calories of dessert.
Michael Jacobs - USA Today


This is a truly excellent book, one of the best it has been my pleasure to read in the line of duty for years. Joanne Harris achieves everything a novelist should aim for, with no sense of effort or striving...Harris's achievement is not only in her story, in her insight and humour and the wonderful picture of small-town life in rural France, but also in her writing.... In short, this is what we call a rave review.
Sophia Watson - Literary Review


A first novel that rather cloyingly describes the transformations that overtake the residents of a small French village when a mysterious stranger and her daughter arrive and open a chocolate shop. The townspeople of Lansquenet live in the present day, but the patterns of their lives were established long before they were born—and change very little from year to year. A hamlet straight out of Flaubert, Lansquenet is filled with busybodies who have nothing better to do with their days than spy on one another, until two new arrivals provide fresh grist for the mill. What inspired Vivianne Rocher to move to Lansquenet with her daughter Anouk and to open a chocolate boutique is never explained, but her effect on the populace is profound and immediate: the grim little town and its sniping inhabitants are transformed through the magic of Vivianne's confections into an almost surreal assembly of sensualists, each somehow discovering in bonbons the key to happiness. Elderly crones find themselves remembering long-forgotten loves; shy young couples work up the nerve to break the ice. Is this all the result of only chocolate? Or is some more sinister force at work? The local priest suspects the worst, and his suspicions are reinforced by his awareness that Vivianne opened her shop on Shrove Tuesday-and thus has been tempting the entire parish from its Lenten austerities for the past six weeks. Now, she has even announced plans for a "Chocolate Festival" to take place on Easter Sunday itself! Horrified, he hatches a plan to foil her festivities, but God does not always side with the just. Who will win the soul of the town? Premise, prose, and pace all march along capably, but they fail nevertheless to raise the whole above the debilities of heavy symbolism and excruciatingly precious plot.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. To what extent is Reynaud the villain of the piece? Is it possible to understand or sympathize with the motivations and feelings behind his actions?

2. Reynaud and Vianne seem to be natural enemies from the start, and yet they both have significant elements in common: a haunted past, a desire for acceptance. How do you think this affects their relationship?

3. The preparation and eating of food is decribed in detail in many parts of the book. What is the significance of this, and what do the attitudes of the main characters towards food show about their personalities?

4. The author uses the first-person narrative voice for both of her principal characters. Why do you feel she does this, and how effective is each in showing the character's attitudes and motivations?

5. Vianne appears to other people as a strong and confident woman, but is secretly filled with fears and insecurities. To what extent do you think she has been strengthened or damaged by her relationship with her bohemian mother?

6. The themes of moving on and settling down recur frequently in the book. Why do you think Vianne wants so badly to remain in the village? Do you think she eventually decides to stay?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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