Chocolat (by Joanne Harris)

It's taken me a few years to get around to reading this novel by Joanne Harris. I had read quite a few reviews, all of them enthusiastic, calling the book a modern fairy-tale, or a delightful romp, or even suggesting it was one of the best books ever written. But somehow, despite the alluring title, I wasn't keen enough to buy it new, so had to wait until I found it in a charity shop.

It's not a long novel (just over 300 pages in paperback) but it's taken me about a week to read it. That's a good thing, in that I haven't found it gripping or un-put-down-able, but it means I don't class it as one of the best books ever. It was pleasant, well-written, and a bit different to most modern books - but having finished it, I'm not sure entirely why the world raved over it.

The story is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother with a six-year-old daughter. They've been travelling, but decide to settle down in a small town in France. Vianne opens a chocolate shop, and gradually makes friends - and also enemies. She particularly arouses the ire of the local priest, a parsimonious and rather unpleasant man. In many ways she's the catalyst for changes in this ultra-traditional town: she asks questions, challenges people's ideas, and generally tries to make life pleasant for them.

There's a strange sort of mystical element running through the book; initially I wondered if there was going to be some unexpected secret (was Vianne a witch? An angel? An extra-terrestrial?) but as the book continued, I realised that it was just that her personality and life experience were in contrast to those of the people around her.

Still, she perceives more than is there - spotting people's deep problems, seeing their thoughts - and although this is explained partly in terms of reading tarot cards and scrying in chocolate, I wanted there to be something more, yet that thread almost faded away.

So, all in all, an interesting book; worth reading, yet not gripping. The ending was dramatic in various ways, and mostly satisfactory, although it left the future somewhat open. I'll probably try reading more by this author, and may even re-read this book again one day.

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