Chocolat – Book Review

chocolat “Are we staying? Are we, maman?” She tugs at my arm, insistently. “I like it, I like it here. Are we staying?”

I catch her up in my arms and kiss the top of her head. She smells of smoke and frying pancakes and warm bedclothes on a winter’s morning. Why not? It’s as good a place as any.

“Yes, of course,” I tell her, my mouth in her hair. “Of course we are.” Not quite a lie. This time it may even be true. – from Chocolat, page 5 –

Vianne Rocher and her adorable six year old daughter Anouk arrive in the small French town of Lansquenet during a carnival and decide to stay and make it their home. Vianne immediately opens a chocolaterie and begins to minister to the town’s quirky and sometimes troubled inhabitants – including the misunderstood Josephine, the river gypsy Roux, the elderly and sympathetic Armande Voizin, and the dog-loving Guillaume. Vianne has an uncanny ability to know what each of these people need and her lavish chocolates and candies appeal to their desire to feed temptation and deny themselves nothing. But there is a dark shadow lurking in the village in the guise of a priest by the name of Pere Reynaud. Certain that Vianne and her daughter are witches who put his church in peril, the priest plans to bring them down on the eve of Easter as the town prepares to celebrate by participating in a huge chocolate festival.

Joanne Harris writes with rich, evocative language. Her descriptions of place and the people who inhabit the town of Lansquenet are luscious. When she writes of cooking, I found myself slipping between her words and sensing the joy of this experience.

There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking; in the choosing of the ingredients, the process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing, and flavoring, the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional utensils – the pestle and mortar with which my mother made her incense turned to a more homely purpose, her spices and aromatics giving up their subtleties to a baser, more sensual magic. And it is partly the transience of it that delights me; so much loving preparation, so much art and experience, put into a pleasure that can last only a moment, and which only a few will ever fully appreciate. – from Chocolat, page 51 –

So I was a bit baffled when I found myself not loving this book. I wanted to love it. I had looked forward to reading it. I had read glowing reviews of it. But, something was missing.

The plot is a bit thin. There are many unanswered questions about Vianne and her mother…who she remembers throughout the story and who has impacted her life greatly. I was never sure why Vianne never stayed in one place for long and who she was running from. And although I enjoyed the quirky village characters, Harris made the good ones too good and the evil ones too evil.

For five minutes I stand alone in the square with my arms held out, feeling the wind in my hair. I have forgotten to bring a coat, and my red skirt billows out around me. I am a kite, feeling the wind, rising in an instant above the church tower, rising above myself. For a moment I am disoriented, seeing the scarlet figure below in the square, at once here and there. Falling back into myself, breathless, I see Reynaud’s face staring out from a high window, his eyes dark with resentment. he looks pale, the bright sunlight barely grazing his skin with color. His hands are clenched on the sill before him, and his knuckles are the bleached whiteness of his face. – from Chocolat, page 135 –

I had trouble rating this book. On the one hand, Harris writes with a fluidity and beauty that I appreciated and would rate a 4.5. On the other hand, I was disappointed in a plot that seemed to fall short and would only garner a 2.5 or 3. The allure of language kept me turning the pages – and certainly there are plenty of readers who found this to be enough to give Chocolat sumptous reviews.  Perhaps it was all those great reviews which raised my expectations. In the end, I closed the book and felt a bit disappointed. Despite this, I will give Harris another try, if only to enjoy her rich descriptions.


Other reviews of this book:

Melissa at BookNut
Kim at Page After Page
Margaret at BooksPlease
Petunia at Educating Petunia
Chris at Book-a-Rama
Jill at The Magic Lasso
Bookfool at Bookfoolery and Babble
Alison at So Many Books, So Little Time

Have you read and reviewed this book? Give me your link and I’ll add it to the list above!

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  1. I saw the movie! Does that count? 🙂

    • Kathy on February 28, 2009 at 10:13

    The plot sounded familiar to me, but I think it was from when the movie was out. It does sound good, it’s too bad it doesn’t deliver.

    • Linda on February 28, 2009 at 10:29

    Hi from readersreviews. I read Chocolat several years ago and absolutely loved it. (Possibly my imagining Johnny Depp as Roux colored my opinion a bit!) I enjoyed the magical aspects and the changes wrought in people who ate the chocolate.

    • Eva on February 28, 2009 at 11:46

    I’m glad you wrote this review. I loved the movie when I saw it, so I was hesitant about reading the book, and after this I think I’ll skip it.

  2. That’s too bad! The movie is so wonderful. I love Juliette Binoche. The soundtrack is wonderful, too. Maybe that will make up for the book!

    • Joanna on February 28, 2009 at 12:28

    I’m one of the people who loved this book – it was mostly because of all the things left unsaid, all the almost unexplainable that could be explained by magic. Since you liked the characters you could try the sequel – the magic there is a bit more pronounced and we get some of the answers that were missing from Chocolat. It’s called The Lollipop Shoes in Europe, but I think it has a different title in the US.

  3. i read Chocolat last December. i found it to be magical. i understand what you mean about the plot – but i guess the language and the concept were enough for me to really enjoy it.

    i have a very brief review here.

  4. I have also only seen the movie but was interested in the book. I guess I will have to read all the of the reviews and decide which points are most important to me in choosing to read this book or not.

    • Wendy on February 28, 2009 at 13:40

    Sure, Amy! *laughs*

    Kathy: *nods* It disappointed me, but others loved it, so you might too.

    Linda: You certainly were not alone…many readers gushed over this book.

    Eva: You might want to read other reviews as well. I have yet to see the movie – but it sounds like people loved the movie universally.

    Priscilla: I think I will have to see the movie…everyone seems to have loved it.

    Joanna: Thanks for the recommendation on the sequel (it is called The Girl With No Shadow in the U.S.)

    Alison: Thanks for the link … I’ll add you to my post. I can see why this book resonated with some readers.

    Kristen: Don’t take my word as the last word. Many readers have loved the book…and I wonder if seeing the movie first flavored the book for them. I haven’t yet seen the movie.

    • Kailana on February 28, 2009 at 13:46

    I have always meant to read this book and just never got around to it. I think I even owned it at some point, but I don’t think I do anymore.

  5. I’m one of those who loved the book. I also loved the sequel (The Girl With No Shadow – not shoes). I wonder if you’ll read it, in spite of your disappointment in Chocolat.

    • Petunia on February 28, 2009 at 15:55

    Thanks for the link. I was one who hated this book. The only part that I liked was the descriptions of chocolate(YUM!). I couldn’t read it without a chocolate stash nearby.

  6. I enjoyed this movie and have been wanting to read the book. Thanks for the review!

  7. I saw the movie before I read the book and enjoyed both, which is rare for me. There are differences between the two but both had a magical quality. I liked the mystery surrounding Vianne and found the lure of the language irresistible.

    • Wendy on March 2, 2009 at 15:56

    Kailana: If you still have it, I would not discourage you from reading it. So many people loved this book, I feel like I am in the minority.

    Les: I may pick up the sequel. I’m not writing off Harris in the least. Sometimes I wonder if how we feel about books are related to the mood at the moment we read them. I will admit to being in a bit of a slump over the last month.

    Petunia: The descriptions were wonderful! *laughing*

    S. Krishna: I really should see the movie, I think.

    BooksPlease: I agree with the lure of the language. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Linda in Maine on March 3, 2009 at 17:03

    I haven’t read this, but would probably be among the readers loving the language of it enough to rate it highly. Always lured by beautiful writing, though I have nothing against a great plot, either 🙂

    • Teddy on March 4, 2009 at 20:11

    I liked the movie but not enough to inspire me to read the book. I usually don’t go by the movie but the story just wasn’t stong enough for me to want more.

    Thanks for the wonderful review!

    • Anna on March 6, 2009 at 06:36

    Thanks for the honest review. It sounds like an interesting story, and the passages you included sound great. I think the unanswered questions would drive me batty though.

    • Jenny on March 6, 2009 at 11:58

    I felt exactly the same way you did – loved the prose, did not much care for the book. I read it ages ago, and I can’t remember specifically what bothered me about it. I enjoyed her book Gentlemen and Players much more – I think because I related more to the narrator of Gentlemen and Players – but I found its plot a hair unsatisfying too. Have you read that one?

    • Wendy on March 7, 2009 at 11:14

    Linda: I can usually forgive plot problems when the prose is gorgeous…I don’t know if I am just in a bit of a funk these days, but the lack of plot really annoyed me in this one!

    Teddy: I know what you mean!

    Anna: You’re welcome – I don’t always need my questions answered, but there were just so many of them left unanswered in this book!

    Jenny: Glad to hear we agreed 🙂 I have not read any of her other books…but, I will give her another shot. I’ve seen Gentlemen and Players on the B&N sale table…will consider picking it up after your recommendation 🙂

    • LN on July 27, 2009 at 08:18

    I remember having read this book few years ago and I really enjoyed it. I also liked the film with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, but if you didn’t like the plot of the book I doubt that you will like the film as the story line is even thinner.

    • Wendy on July 31, 2009 at 07:42

    LN: A lot of people seemed to really like this book. I have the film on my queue on Netflix…so we’ll see if I like that better 🙂

    • sophia on November 8, 2009 at 22:40

    The reason why she never stays in one place isnt necesarily because she running from anyone, its because Vianne is a gypsy, which is also why shes veiwed as such an outsider by the other towns people at the begining of the book.

    • Wendy on November 9, 2009 at 07:59

    Sophia: *nods* Yes, I realize she was a born a gypsy…but that didn’t necessarily mean she HAD to keep moving. She had a little girl who wanted to settle in one place, and yet Vivianne kept on moving. I got the feeling that she WAS running from something (whether it be from forming relationships with others, or for some other reason)…but Harris never really lets us understand Vivianne’s motivations, in my opinion.

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