'Chocolat' by Joanne Harris

Well, I have just finished this book. It took me a while to get into it and I would have put down about a quarter of the way in had it not been the chosen reading task - which, by the way, is a good thing.

But I began to enjoy Chocolat much more as I read on and to appreciate the vividness of some of Joanne Harris's writing - place, decor, dress, food are all described in sensual detail. In particular, I enjoyed the author's cast of supporting characters - many of whom were interesting, credibly drawn and sympathetic - such as Guillaume, whose much loved dog dies part-way through, the feisty Armande (don't we all want an aunt/gran like her - or to be like her ourselves one day?), the taciturn and moral Roux, the uptight and 'lost' Caro. These were all recognisable and intriguing characters and I thought Joanne Harris realistically portrayed the life and personalities in a small village.

I did, however, have a major problem with the book's construction, which got in the way for me, in particular towards the end. I found Vianne and Reynard, the two narrators, largely unconvincing and two-dimensional. Now, this may just be me - but I wonder whether it could have been a better book without the first person narration. I quickly got bored with the deliberately ambiguous is she a witch/magic realism stuff (but then tarot, divining and even homeopathy don't impress me, so I'm possibly not the target audience here) and I just thought that Reynard's monologues were artificial and made no real sense - a man with such insight into his own motives and actions should, well, have a bit more insight and self-awareness. Or maybe I just found him too unlikeable and Vianne too 'magical' - I do like to like narrators and there are few instances I can think of where unsympathetic narrators manage to hold an entire book. I wondered whether Vianne ever farts, shouts unreasonably at Anouk or is ever wrong in her judgement about someone. Nor did I picture her as attractive/alluring and I resented the idea that Roux, by implication like any red-blooded heterosexual male, would of course want to have beautiful languid sex with her in the garden. All a bit too Mills and Boon for me. Importantly, as a parent myself, I thought the hints that her inability to settle was in some way related to her terror of losing her child was a bit obvious and a bit trite. I don't know any parent who doesn't live with a nameless, shapeless fear about their children but we just get on with it. I never really got a satisfactorily convincing sense of who Vianne was and what her motivations were. That's a problem for me when she is first person narrator.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed (and envied) much of the writing, especially the descriptive passages - the fantastic birthday party meal, for example. At times, the author over-used particular adverbs and adjectives in relation to characters and their actions - for example, I lost count of the number of times people and attitudes were described as 'contemptuous', 'contemptuously' or with 'contempt'. There was also the occasional continuity error (children pooling their resources, but the boy proffering just the one coin in the shop). But these things simply served to reassure me, as an amateur writer, that someone can produce a good, engaging, well-written novel and, hey, not every single word has to be perfect and perfectly positioned. A great cast of characters, vivid setting, passionate prose and decent plot are more than enough.

I hope all this doesn't sound too negative, as this is a book I did, on balance, enjoy and would suggest that others read. Do I want to find out what Vianne did next (in The Lollipop Shoes)? No, not really.