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It took me a few years to get around to reading this novel by Joanne Harris. I had read quite a few reviews, all of them enthusiastic, calling the book a modern fairy-tale, or a delightful romp, or even suggesting it was one of the best books ever written. But somehow, despite the alluring title, I wasn't keen enough to buy it new, so had to wait until I found it in a charity shop.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: Vianne and her daughter arrive out of the blue in a respectable town, and shock the residents by opening a chocolate shop during Lent.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2000
Publisher: Black Swan
ISBN: 978-0552998482

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It's not a long novel (just over 300 pages in paperback) but it took me about a week to read it. That was a good thing, in that I didn't find it gripping or un-put-down-able (so I was able to get on with regular life as well), but it means I don't class it as one of the best books ever. It was pleasant, well-written, and a bit different to most modern books - but having finished it, I wasn't entirely sure entirely why the world raved over it.

The story is about Vianne Rocher, a single mother with a six-year-old daughter. They've been travelling, but decide to settle down in a small town in France. Vianne opens a chocolate shop, and gradually makes friends - and also enemies. She particularly arouses the ire of the local priest, a parsimonious and rather unpleasant man. In many ways she's the catalyst for changes in this ultra-traditional town: she asks questions, challenges people's ideas, and generally tries to make life more pleasant for them.

There's a sort of mystical element running through the book which slightly puzzled me. Initially I wondered if there was going to be some unexpected secret (was Vianne a witch? An angel? An extra-terrestrial?) but as the book continued, I realised that it was just that her personality and life experience were in stark contrast to those of the people around her. Still, she certainly perceives more than most, and a lot more than is obvious at surface level. She is very good at spotting people's deep problems, seeing their thoughts, guessing their passions. Although this is explained partly in terms of reading tarot cards and scrying in chocolate, I wanted there to be something more; I was disappoitned that this thread almost faded away.

There's drama later in the book, inevitable clashes, a romance of sorts, moments of panic... and a mostly satisfying conclusion, although it left the future rather more open than I would have liked. All in all, an interesting book; worth reading, yet not gripping. It prompted me to find more by the same author, and also, a while later, to watch the film made of the book. To my surprise I enjoyed the movie more than the book - and that's unusual for me.

Recommended, if only because it's undoubtedly different from most other novels.

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