Chocolate and Ashes

This year, the 14th of February is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a conjunction that hasn’t happened since 1945. Whether you tend towards the secular or the spiritual, it is the perfect time as a lover of literature to read Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

Set in the French countryside during the season of Lent and told in the alternate voices of the staid village priest and an unconventional newcomer, the novel explores the mysterious interplay between self-indulgence and self-discipline, enchantment and dogma, pleasure and sin.

The novel was the basis for the movie starring Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, and Judi Dench, but the book itself (short-listed for the Whitbread Prize) is the dark chocolate counterpart to the film’s milk chocolate charm.

Coming unexpectedly into the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes during Carnival festivities, Vianne and her daughter want to find some respite from their peripatetic life, but Father Reynaud is resolved to send them on their way again, determined to save his congregation from the temptation of Vianne’s delicacies and her everyday use of charms and folklore.

Does chocolate hold that much power? Does Vianne? In a conversation between Armande (the first to align herself with this quirky stranger) and Vianne, Harris is not afraid to use the word “witch”, but Vianne herself thinks “It’s the wrong word, but I knew what she meant”.

As this tale unfolds with revelations of the past from both the curé and the confectioner, the villagers’ lives turn in unexpected directions for good and ill, unending families, sewing discord, forging new loves and alliances. And as this Lenten journey moves towards Easter, we get more clues about Vianne and Father Reynaud own natures. Like a medieval Mystery Play, the reader is confronted with characters who are Everyman (and Everywoman), but can also be seen as symbol of a larger reality. Is Vianne a mother who wants a stable life for her child? A witch? An ancient goddess who again walks the earth? Is Father Reynaud the protector of his flock? A man grappling with this own demons, both past and present? Or, in his midnight-hued soutane, the Black Man who brings death to all around him?

Feast or fast? Indulgence or abstention? Film or book? Whatever your inclination or belief, let your reading mirror the season.



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