Harris, Joanne. 1999. Chocolat. New York: Viking.

Reviewed 24 March 1999

Chocolat (cover) "My name is John, and I have not had a piece of chocolate for four days" [clapping from audience]. "I resisted the urge while reading Chocolat" [standing ovation].

OK, I'm out of the closet. I am a chocoholic. I hide it in a hiding place where no one ever goes—in the pantry with the cupcakes. (I don't know why I bother, since the kids don't get in the pantry, and my ex-wife doesn't live here; but I digress.)

This book is filled with the textures, sights, sounds, and scents of a very richly imagined environment—and ambiguous hints of magic and the unknown. But it's not just another Upper-West-Side-yuppie shopping list of brand names; in fact, there are no brand names in the book at all. (See, New Yorker writers, it can be done.)

This story is told entirely in first person, which is rather unusual in a contemporary novel. It also has multiple viewpoints. The protagonist, and most sympathetic viewpoint character, is Vianne Rocher, an unmarried mother who has just come to the backwater village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, somewhere in the French countryside. Her musings, memories, and descriptions bring some of the best features of stream-of-consciousness writing (particularly Proust) into English without the arrogance, supercilious pretention, and egotism of Proust. The antagonist, and other viewpoint character, is Father Francis Reynaud, a less-than-sympathetic village priest.

The story is about the price of keeping secrets. It is set against a confrontation between tradition and change, deception and truth, even the Devil and the Redeemer, during the period of Lent. The sacrifices made for Lent in this traditional village include many varieties of self-denial. As a chocolatier, Vianne's presence and business mock that self-denial.

There are many hints of a kind of magic in this book, but it seems as though the author was afraid to reach that far in an archly literary short novel (only 240 pages, running about 60,000 words). That, unfortunately, is the downfall of the novel. The setup promises much, but simply does not deliver, retreating to mundane explanations. (I must admit, however, that the antagonist's defeat by chocolate is—pardon the pun—just desserts.) This was the most disappointing aspect of the book. There are so many subtle references to folktales, fairy tales, and traditional European alchemy and magic (and many not-so-subtle, such as naming a scheming antagonist "Reynaud") that one expects the author to use these hints as more than a merely literary conceit.

The other problem with this book is that the plot is virtually absent—it is so slight that summarizing it would lead only to laughter. The descriptive technique is a somewhat unusual, but nonetheless effective, means of introducing and establishing several fascinating characters and relationships. However, although there are Events in the book (its one errant pretention), there is very little in the way of plot. The Events do not seem to follow from each other. There was an opportunity for something either darkly Faustian or of much lighter flavor here, but the book succumbs to the fashion of contemporary literary fiction: nothing really happens. The secrets, as they are revealed, seem much less important than the book seemed to promise.

In some ways, this is a very "safe" book. The hints of magic are subtle enough to keep from turning off fuddy-duddy marketing geeks and allow the book to avoid being labelled "fantasy." But the characters and descriptions are reaching so hard for that magic that its absence destroys much of the plot. Rather than a film, it is just a storyboard composed of a few Impressionist watercolors in an album. And that is a shame.

Overall rating: 3 stars
Good.
Lovely textures and prose. Not quite traditionally speculative fiction, but on the border between fantasy and the mainstream. Definitely worth study for its technique. However, Ms. Harris needs the courage to reach for the magic waiting to burst out of her characters.


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