Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The way to Hell is paved with slabs of chocolate according to Father Francis Reynaud, the priest of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the tiny French village that is the setting for Joanne Harris’s charming novel, ‘Chocolat’.

Reynaud, wrestling with his own inner demons, is ill equipped to lead anyone else away from the slippery slopes of temptation and sin, a fact that he seems oblivious to. He watches with impotent rage as his hitherto obedient parish flock to the new chocolaterie, opened by the mysterious Vianne Rocher. He decides that drastic steps must be taken to stem this flow towards decadence, but will his measures work?

‘Chocolat’ pits unbending religious fanaticism against the allure of chocolate, and all it represents – sensuality, freedom from self-imposed inhibitions, and simple happiness.

Vianne’s non-judgmental acceptance of people’s foibles, her accommodation of an eclectic array of beliefs, and lack of adherence to social conventions, or calcifying religious convictions, puts her at odds with Reynaud - intolerant of human weaknesses, while at the same time, weighed down by his own guilty secrets, and imploding with repressed desires.

Ms. Harris takes a few well-aimed zingers against the Catholic Church, but in her over-zealous criticism, one can’t help wondering if she’ll throw the baby out with the bath water.

Though the pace is a little slow, and the plot leaves some loose ends untied, her narrative style is truly mouth-watering. Reynaud seems better depicted than the character Vianne, who never really springs off the page with the same degree of intensity. Occasionally, the humor seems forced, but the final chapters culminate in a wickedly delightful dénouement. We can’t help but applaud when hypocrisy and intolerance so effectively prove to be their own undoing.

It’s a bittersweet truth that it’s difficult to wage a victorious war against chocolate. Many dieters have learned this to their anguish. But still, I can’t help but feel for Father Reynaud in his predicament. How can people gorge so recklessly on chocolate, even if it is darker than the Devil’s deeds, with no fear of the natural consequences – Cavities! Acne! Obesity!

After all, mindless indulgence, in anything, comes at a price. By failing to explore this, the author has lost an opportunity to make a good book better.

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