‘Chocolat’ book review

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris (Viking Penguin, l999), is a modern fairy tale. The "good fairy" is Vianne Rocher, a mysterious young woman who takes up residence in a tiny French village. The "wicked wizard" is the local pastor, Father Francis Reynaud.

When Vianne opens a chocolate shop across the street from the church, the battle is joined. Reynaud decides that Vianne is a baleful influence ‹ maybe even a witch ‹ and he is determined to drive her out of town; she is just as determined to stay and to counteract the forces of repression.

The novel opens on Shrove Tuesday and comes to climax on Easter Sunday, a not very subtle hint as to the author’s intentions!

The village has its quota of eccentrics: Armande, elderly and nearly blind, who becomes Vianne’s friend and confidant; Luc, her grandson, who needs liberating from his mother and his stutter; Roux, who lives on a river boat; Josephine an abused wife; and Guillaume, painfully attached to his little dog. For all of these “The Celestial Praline,”as Vianne calls her shop, is a sanctuary. Vianne is their confessor; eating and drinking chocolate is their sacrament. Reynaud has his own coterie, including Armande’s daughter and Josephine’s husband.

In the novel we hear alternating first-person voices. There is, of course, Vianne; but there is also Francis, who pours out his heart to an elderly, comatose priest, who appears to be in a nursing home.

From the way the protagonists are portrayed at the beginning, the reader suspects that the story will end in tragedy. But it ends in triumph, with the wicked priest sent packing and Vianne reigning supreme. That’s why I call it a fairy tale. It turns out exactly as we wish, with happiness reigning and repression banished.

The popularity of Chocolat, especially in Europe, is due in good measure to the wonderful descriptions of chocolate delights! Vianne proves not to be a witch, but she is indeed a wizard in the kitchen. The author was herself born in a sweetshop, so she knows of what she speaks. It is no wonder that in the end, it is the irresistible temptation of chocolate that is the priest’s undoing.

Our church library committee conducts an annual, intergenerational event we call “Chocolate Sunday.” Because, we assert, two of the best things in life are a good book and a box of chocolates. It’s too bad that Joanne Harris lives in England; she would be a star attraction.


John C. Purdy is a retired Presbyterian minister living in Santa Fe, N.M.