Joanne Harris was born in her grandparents' candy shop in France and is the great-granddaughter of a woman known locally as a witch and a healer. As most first novels often carry a fair-sized load of autobiographical elements, it comes as no surprise that Chocolat is set in a chocolatiers' shop owned by a mysteriously bewitching woman in the south of France. Harris blends these familiar (to her) ingredients to create a novel as delightful and indulgent as the taste it celebrates.
Free-spirited drifter Vianne Rocher blows into the tiny French hamlet of Lansquenet on a warm February wind, right behind the Shrove Tuesday carnival. Sensing something special about this conservative little town just off the tourist maps, Vianne decides to stay for a while. She and her precocious young daughter, Anouk, alight in the village square, setting up a chocolate shop right across from the town's Catholic church. As in any small town, the locals are chary of strangers, but Vianne's almost preternatural sensitivities to their needs and desires draws the townspeople to her and her shop. One notable exception: the village priest, a suspicious man whose secret guilt and shame ties him fast to a community whose petty sins and predictable ways he despises.
A band of gypsies making camp in their houseboats on the river outside town becomes a flashpoint between Father Reynaud and his "Bible groupies" and the newcomer and her friends. While Vianne tries to help an abused woman get out of her marriage, to reconcile a dying woman with her estranged grandson and to console an old man who is losing his best friend, Reynaud connives to put a stop to the chocolate festival Vianne has planned for Easter Sunday. He is convinced that such a debauch must be planned by a minion of the devil. Certain that Vianne can only be a witch, Reynaud pits himself against the supposed author of the paroxysm of sinful indulgence ruining his flock. This contest of wills for the spirit of a community rolls toward a final confrontation that is funny, sad, and deliciously ironic.
Not quite as profound as it wants to be, Chocolat delivers a sweetly satisfying story all the same. The Catholic Church takes some hard knocks without any answering redemption. "Good," in the guise of treating yourself, inevitably triumphs over "evil" Lenten (and other) asceticism. But there's no way the pursed-lipped priest is going to win the battle of appealing against the delightful Vianne. Period. This ode to the kitchen and the heart was made into a movie (that garnered several Oscar nominations) starring beautiful people Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche, and tasted just as delicious to theater-goers. May Joanne Harris continue to make good on the promise she shows here.