Chocolat, a novel by Joanne Harris; copyright 1999 by Joanne Harris. Originally published in Great Britain by Doubleday, 1999.
The movie based on this book has been a favorite of mine since I first saw it. It is a gently narrated story of the triumph of the joy of life over repression. There are love and death, children and old people, conflict and resolution. So when I found a copy of the book in my local used book store I was eager to see what the movie was based on. The clerks, who know my tastes and share them in many ways, warned me that the movie was nothing like the book. This is to be expected, I thought. When translating from the page to the screen, the story must change; the demands of the medium are different.
They were right. The book is nothing like the movie. The movie is a light confection. A mild temptation. A Venus' Nipple. A sweet bonbon. The book is a sensuous plunge into a deep dark dessert. It is a tiramisu. It is a deliciously rich indulgence. The story, while changed, is still the same. All the characters are there, but they are given heft. Everything has a deeper meaning. There is connection to dire, secret past events. The resolution is less sweet, but perhaps more complete.
Vianne Rochet and her six year old daughter Anouk arrive
in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a tiny French village of "two hundred souls at most,
no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux" during the
Carnival of Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, the last fling before the start of Lent
in this conservative Catholic town. The villagers are polite to the strangers,
but curious when Vianne leases the old bakery shop and moves in upstairs. When
she opens La Celeste Praline, Chocolaterie Artisanale, the town becomes divided about this change. For some, the shop is not appropriate for their way of life. Perhaps in Paris or Nice a fancy chocolate shop would be welcome, but there is no place in Lansquenet for such indulgence. Others see no harm and find the new business a refreshing change.
On one side is Father Reynaud, the town's priest, who has decided that Vianne and her shop are a deliberate affront to his dignity and
a threat to the faith of his parishioners, with the villagers who do not like change in their quiet lives backing him. On the other side are those who are more open-minded and who have befriended Vianne. The conflict deepens with the arrival of The Travelers, a loose community of vagabond river people who want to tie up near the town for a few weeks while they make repairs to the boats that serve as their homes. La Praline is one thing, but to Reynaud these people are obviously criminals and a real threat to his community. When Vianne and her friends help the Travelers and give them work, Reynaud declares war.
As the story winds through Lent, culminating in a Festival of Chocolate on Easter Sunday, we learn of the secrets in Father Reynaud's past. We see the blooming of Josephine after Vianne helps her leave her abusive husband. We sympathize with Armande, the eighty year old widow as she faces failing health, and see her reconciled with her grandson. The story has many threads and they are woven together to make a lovely tapestry.
From one angle, the theme of the book is the conflict between the conservatism of the traditional Catholic viewpoint and the free thinking joy in life of the frankly pagan Vianne, but if you squint just a little and turn your head just so, the story is about the triumph of life for all. Reynaud and Vianne are both dealing with shadows in their past, and deaths there. The conflicts are
there to be faced by all, and in the end death is there as well, but death is just a part of life, to be accepted and dealt with.