“And what do you believe?”

Magic carpet rides, rune magic […] Space Aliens. The Thing in the closet. The Resurrection and the Life at the turn of a card…I’ve believed them all at one time or another. Or pretended to. Or pretended not to.

[…] “I believe that being happy is the only important thing,” I told him at last.

Based on what I’d heard I had high hopes for Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, expecting a Mary Poppins-esque tale. Instead I had to make myself keep reading in case it redeemed itself. Be forewarned that the following review contains spoilers, as it’s too hard to censor myself while explaining my disappointment.

From the back cover: In tiny Lansquenet, where nothing much has changed in a hundred years, beautiful newcomer Vianne Rocher and her exquisite chocolate shop arrive and instantly play havoc with Lenten vows. Each box of luscious bonbons comes with a free gift: Vianne’s uncanny perception of it’s buyer’s private discontents and a clever, caring cure for them. Is she a witch? Soon the parish no longer cares, as it abandons itself to temptation, happiness, and a dramatic face-off between Easter solemnity and the pagan gaiety of a chocolate festival.

Now, I appreciate happiness as much as the next person, and freely confess to being a chocoholic. I believe in self expression and tolerance and the freedom to speak one’s mind. But I also believe in God, and what this cover summary so nicely leaves out is the fact that Vianne’s archnemesis throughout her stay, the evil “Black Man,” is local priest Curé Reynaud. He is a bitter, misguided man, who thinks that “physical pleasure is the crack into which the devil sends his roots.”

Let me say that I do not think priests are infallible. I know there can be those who claim to be men of God and do little to show it in their thoughts and actions (scandals exposed in the last decade prove this). I am perfectly fine with fictional priests who are human such as Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, or even twisted like Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The difference is that the failings belong specifically to those characters. Here both priests are intolerant hypocrites, and lines are clearly drawn between narrow-minded townsfolk with false piety (Caro Clairmont), and the wiser ones who gave up churchgoing or at least its beliefs (her mother Armande).

Also, the views attributed to the church are a little outlandish, at least for a book set in modern times. Nuns would not tell an unmarried mother that the child would be better off raised in a convent orphanage. Josephine is scolded for breaking the Holy Vow of Matrimony when she leaves her abusive husband, and urged to return to him; in most churches I’m pretty sure that’s grounds for anullment. Lenten fasts become foolish when Reynaud limits himself to bread and water, or soup and black coffee. The goal of giving something up is not deprivation or Puritan austerity, but to be a small reminder of Christ’s suffering and the chance to give back, like donating the saved money to charity.

I don’t mind books which use magic in a fantasy or fairy-tale kind of way (indeed, they are some of my favorites), so it is not simply a matter of taste here. My biggest complaint is that the book takes non-belief and the occult (including scrying, card-reading, and reincarnation) and pits them directly against the Church. Organized religion comes out looking very poorly. The anger is all on Reynaud’s side while Vianne is simply smiles and helpfulness, which makes her seem a tolerant, benevolent victor. But why does there have to be a victor? Couldn’t everyone realize their ignorance, become friends, celebrate both meanings of Easter, and enjoy chocolate goodies as well? Instead the priest succumbs to the temptation of chocolate and flees in shame. Easter Mass is abandoned and the pagan chocolate festival lasts all day.

There were a few redeeming aspects. I found the descriptions of chocolate-making delectably interesting, and loved the character of Guillaume, who was very tenderly drawn. But he was not enough to overcome all the other characters.

As you can see I had a very strong reaction to this book, but I have tried to be rational in explaining why it didn’t appeal to me. I definitely won’t be looking for the recent sequel, but I’m still willing to give the movie version a try someday. I’ve heard it differed from the book–and besides, if all else fails I can mute it and just watch Johnny Depp!

Published in: on July 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] it fair, a few disappointments as well. These are not bad books, just not what I was expecting: Chocolat, by Joanne Harris Murder on the Eiffel Tower, by Claude Izner (I was actually given a copy of this […]

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