Review: Chocolat, Joanne Harris | This Girl's Bookshelf

Review: Chocolat, Joanne Harris

Chocolat Chocolate Joanne Harris novel roman cover Johnny Depp film France

Chocolat is one of the rare cases where I watched the movie before getting a chance to read the book. Normally I prefer to read a novel prior to watching the film adaptation, because the book, 9 times out of 10, contains more detail and if just better overall. I watched the film Chocolat before I even knew there was a novel it was based on.

Chocolat is, in a nutshell, about a clever, emancipated, and somewhat magical chocolatier.

Vianne Rocher (sometimes Jeanne, sometimes Anne, sometimes Sylviane) travels across the world with her daughter, Anouk, in the tradition set by her mother. The mother and daughter settle in the quiet town of Lansquenet (for how long, she does not know), opening a chocolate shop and ruffling more than a few feathers. Vianne does not attend church. She asks too many questions. She opens her shop on the first day of Lent, and does not close on Sundays.

The basic plotline has been done before; it's nothing special. The new girl in town shakes up the stuffy townspeople, changing their outlook and breaking through their prejudices! But the relationships in Chocolat are what really shine - and I'm not merely speaking about romantic ones. In fact, the romance which is so prominent on the film's poster - and, consequentially, the cover of my movie edition of the book - barely takes up a chapter in the novel. Instead, the personal platonic relationships between Vianne and the townspeople of Lansquenet make up the majority of the text and are very rewarding. Vianne is clever and calm, always seeming to know the correct path in everyone's life but her own.

The book is set in France, but not to worry - it includes no more than a few words of Kindergarten French (Do you understand the title? Chocolat? You'll do fine.) The only significant piece of French in the book is the following bit of song:

V'là l'bon vent, v'là l'joli vent,
V'là l'bon vent, ma mie m'appelle
V'là l'bon vent, v'là l'joli vent,
V'là l'bon vent, ma mie m'attend.


Which is a Quebecois folk song that translates to:
Here's the good wind, here's the pretty wind,
Here's the good wind, my friend calls me.
Here's the good wind, here's the pretty wind,
Here's the good wind, my friend awaits me.

And here's how it sounds.


Vianne is something of a witch - not in a powerful, magic wands, Harry Potter sort of way, more that she possesses a whole slew of superstitions inherited from her mother. She takes her tarot cards, healing herbs, and magical gestures and puts her own spin on them - such as scrying in melted chocolate. The "magic" in Chocolat is firmly on the sidelines - It's like magical realism, or a fairy tale where a tiny bit of magic exists: wishing on stars, or dreams brought to life, or friendly helping spirits. No one event in the book can be firmly attributed to the supernatural - maybe it's real, maybe not. But if not, how could...?

Chocolat is like a fairy tale in more ways than one - the story is quite timeless. While the film is quite clearly set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the novel makes precious few references to the period in which it is set. With the exception of a passing mention here or there, of television, or automobiles, it could have been set as easily in the 1800s as the '80s. This is in line with the theme of the Old Ways throughout the book - Vianne coming into town and shaking up the Old Way of Life, Vianne struggling herself to break out of her mother's identity, the Old pagan beliefs against the Church... Vianne's beliefs are both old and new, predating Christianity and being revived in a town that has forgotten any other way of life than their current one. Anouk is the only child in school who does not attend church, asking dangerous questions of the priest who comes in to explain the story of Easter to them.

The tale is not told merely from Vianne's eyes - the chapters are split 50/50, or maybe 66/33, between Vianne and the Curé Reynaud. Interestingly, it is implied that Reynaud's chapters are actually overheard by Vianne, through her chocolate-scrying. The difference in writing is not the only thing differentiating the two speakers: Their chapters are set in two different fonts. Reynaud's text is narrow and bold, with heading in thick script. Vianne's is elegant, thin, and flowery. It is an interesting design choice that helps further separate the voices of the two narrators.

I have enjoyed Chocolat, both the book and the movie. Would my opinion of the film have changed if I had read the book before seeing it? Perhaps. I am going to have to give the film a second viewing now that I've read the book. Currently, I enjoyed both and would recommend either one. Johnny Depp as an Irish Gypsy? Yes please. Even if in the novel Roux is a redhead from Marseille...

"Before Christ - before Adonis was born in Bethlehem or Osiris sacrificed at Easter - the cocoa bean was revered. Magical properties were attributed to it. Its brew was sipped on the steps of sacrificial temples; its ecstasies were fierce and terrible."

Length: 4/10 It's a slim book, and can be read through in less than a week. My copy is 306 pages, but it felt shorter than that.
Grade: 76% Intriguing, with wonderful characters, if a mite too short. The plot is a bit stale and it's nothing truly exceptional, but still very enjoyable.
~Joy

3 comments:

Knitlark said...

Hi

I just read Five Quarters of the Orange. Also set in France (I love books set in France). Good book -- not great, but good. Interesting characters, but (for me) it was a bit predictable. Still, I would recommend it. It was better than most.

Have you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I am reading it now, and (so far) it is the best book I have read in awhile. (I have some listed books I have liked on my blog at knitlark.blogspot.com, if you are interested. It is not the most recent posts, which are about yarn, ribbon and needlepoint, but go back a bit and there are some listed)

Also, I love your sock yarn. As soon as I knit down my stash a bit I am definitely ordering some.

Bye for now.
From Knitlark

Sandra said...

I saw your review featured on Book Blog Book Carnival. I enjoyed your review. I saw the film too before I knew about the novel. I've got a copy now and am hoping the book is enjoyable too. It seems from your review that it will be worth reading. Thanks for comparing them the film to the book.

Sam Li said...

I love this book. Thanks for sharing the song in it.