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Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harris

 Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harris

Someone once told me, that in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead. What she didnt tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.

So begins'Peaches for Monsieur le Cure, the third in Joanne Harriss'Chocolat series.

It has been eight years since Vianne Rocher left the tiny, conservative village of'Lansquenet, and though she has convinced herself that she is happy with her present life her two daughters, her enigmatic partner Roux, and her growing chocolate business she is stricken with restlessness, with a fear of settling.'More. Oh, that word. That deceptive word. That eater of lives; that malcontent she thinks, adding: what more could I possibly want?

So when she receives a letter from her deceased friend Armande telling her that she is needed in Lansquenet, she needs little more reason to set off to the small village upon whose fabric she, with her chocolate-making and vaguely witchy ways, has so indelibly made her mark. Its a jarring plot mechanism, and one that is never explained or elaborated upon, and though Im new to this series, I couldnt help but feel that this was an unsubtle way of forcing a character whose story arc has perhaps already been completed back into the fictive realm.

Once in Lansquenet, however, things begin to improve, and the story feels less flailing. The village where Vianne began her forays into chocolate-making has changed since her last visit, with new tensions bristling between the older Catholic population and the growing Muslim one. Vianne arrives with the changing wind a motif that flits determinedly and weightily throughout the bookall too aware that her second sight will lead her to the truths about the simmering religious and cultural prejudices affecting the town. As well as these, she fears, she may learn something about her own relationship that she would rather remain an unknown.

If I stay in Lansquenet, I will find out those secrets. Its a talent or a curse to see beyond the surface. But this time, I do not know whether I really want to see.

Vianne soon meets with Father Reynaud, the old-fashioned, Eeyore-esque priest who has found himself in the centre of the growing discord. Not only is Reynaud tasked with dealing with the increasing fall-out occurring amongst the village residents, but he is seen by many as a precipitating force.'I told Pere Henri the other day, a priest has no friends. In good times, he has followers; in bad times, only enemies, he says. The incident that may cost Renaud his job is a recent arson attack on the new Muslim school, which has been set up in what was formerly Viannes chocolate shop. The shop, as it (presumablyIve not read this books predecessors) did in the first in the trilogy, is again a point around which the frequently described winds of change, here including culture and religion, pivot.

The narrative alternates through the viewpoints of Reynaud and Vianne, both of whom have similar goals bridging the divide in the village communitiesbut diametrically opposed outlooks.'I am sure that whatever problems Reynaud may have encountered in dealing with this community can be solved through humour and dialogue, says Vianne. Reynaud, on the other hand, think of Vianne as 'one of those people who seem to laugh at everything as if life were some kind of perpetual joke, and people endlessly charming and good, instead of being mostly stupid and dull, if not downright poisonous.

For Reynaud, Vianne arrives in town with her usual gift of mayhem, dreams and chocolate, and to be honest, hes not far from the truth. Vianne prescribes food as social and cultural medication, wandering about the town and making friends by thrusting upon them truffles and jams. She seems to walk relatively effortlessly between the towns two cultural groups, with two exceptions: a self-loathing, violent man from the Catholic community, and the enigmatic,'niqab-wearing Ines, the woman many believe to be just as culpable as Reynaud in widening the village divide. Though Vianne is convinced of her ability to read people, along the way she learns that she has been wrong about one important person in her life, leading her to wonder whether she has allowed herself to be misled by the current of half-truths and prejudices whirling about on those Lansquenet winds.

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure'has its moments of beauty and resonance, but also suffers at times from redundancy and simplicity of plot, character and prose. At times the writing is gorgeously dreamy, with hints of magic and vivid imagery that make the journey so very enjoyable. At others, its oddly stilted, with a reliance on ellipses and rhetorical questions that almost feel as though theyre placeholders for elements of the text that are still waiting to be filled in, or that are used as easy justification for plot elements that dont quite make sense. Take for example the following about a young girl Vianne ends up harbouring in her home:'What are her parents thinking now? Why has no one come looking for her? And how long can I keep her here before the news of her presence gets out? Theres an odd sense that everyone in the book seems to be simply'waiting for Vianne to call around with a tasty snack and aura-reading ways to set things back on the straight and narrow.

Where some characters, such as Viannes young children, the teenaged Anouk and the (likely) autistic Rosette, are beautifully drawn, others seem to fall by the wayside. Roux, for example, waves goodbye to Vianne at the beginning of the book, and features only in Viannes thoughts until the very end of the book. For a character over whom Vianne spends so much time musing, we never really get any sense of who he is. Its to be assumed that he is more carefully fleshed out in the earlier volumes in the trilogy, but even so it doesnt seem right to expect such prior characterisation to somehow transfer over, ghostlike, to this one. Indeed, Vianne herself says, of Roux,'A man without a past is like a man without a shadow.

The book almost seems to be in conflict with itself, and I think this confusion is summed up in Viannes own line:'I never said I was wise. All I do is make chocolates. Theres a sort of sophistry here that feels as though it pervades the book, which has a feeling of'betweenness. Its not quite wise, and its not quite magic, and I think this uncertainty is where the problem lies.

And yet, for all that, theres something rich and beautiful about the people and the stories that inhabit these pages, and I found myself, even in spite of my reservations, delightedly immersing myself in their worldwhich is always a good sign as a reader.'

'Rating: star Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harrisstar Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harrisstar Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harrishalfstar Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harrisblankstar Book Review: Peaches for Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harris (very good)

With thanks to Random House Australia for the review copy

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  1. I did not realize that the movie Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp was based on a book, but I really should have guessed that before today. I quite enjoyed the movie and now Im intrigued by the series. Im especially intrigued with the old-fashioned, Eeyore-esque priest. And I can see, from how the movie plays out, that Vianne's character may not quite fulfill the sense of magic she believes she has.

    • Stephanie /

      I havent seen the movie, but it sounds quite different (I think Reynaud is the mayor, rather than the priest, in it?) Id recommend starting with Chocolat rather than leaping in with the third in the trilogy as I did, as I get the feeling theres a lot of backstory that doesnt quite seem to come through here.

  2. I have wanted this book since I first heard about it, but I want to start at the beginning so recently got Chocolat out of the library.

    • Stephanie /

      I think starting with Chocolate is a good idea, as I dont think this one quite stands on its own. Ive heard that the second in the trilogy is a bit of a disappointment, though.

  3. The movie of Chocolat is pretty awful really, and there are big differences in character for example. I really enjoyed this one though, it just captured my imagination.

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