• The Good: Local witch makes chocolate to spite a Catholic priest
  • The Bad: New Age spirituality
  • The Literary: Gorgeous prose with a strong sense of place

Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk are blown into the old French village of Lansquenet, a quiet town whose residents center their lives around the church. Father Reynaud visits Vianne’s new chocolate boutique, but when she refuses his call to service he identifies her as a danger to his flock in the abstemious season of Lent. Vianne knows his type and resolves to win over everyone else in town with her magic.

Who doesn’t love a story that centers around chocolate? Even if you’re here only for the confections, the descriptions of the sweets, spicy and rich, arousing and comforting, will kindle a passion and respect for the pure forms of this divine substance.

The juxtaposition of Vianne and Reynaud is exquisite, and they serve as perfect foes and foils for one another. Vianne has been an outsider her entire life, her own mother moving from place to place every few months, never settling, belonging to the worldly group of people who call themselves travelers. But Vianne and Anouk are growing tired of wandering and hope to find a place where they could belong. I love that Vianne’s mother is so present in the story, despite being dead many years, in the thoughts of her daughter, who takes so much after her yet pities and even resents her mother at times.

Vianne’s mother was a witch, and Vianne’s own pursuit of magic rebelled from her mothers. Instead of tarot cards and theatrics, Vianne prefers domestic magic that doesn’t pry into the innermost thoughts those around her. She knows everyone’s favorite chocolates like a fortune teller reading palms, scrys in chocolate, and thinks of magic as a quiet affair, simply a focus for the mind. With Vianne’s narrative, I feel her desperate need to make a home and be accepted for who she is.

Enter the second of the first person narrators, Father Reynaud, who is an archetypal dark man who seeks to expunge Vianne. Reynaud draws a solid boundary of who is an outsider and puts Vianne firmly on the other side. Her knowledge of other ways of life and other religions and her polite but firm refusal to join his church shakes the very foundations of Reynaud’s beliefs. He must choose between his humanity, saving his flock, and winning the war over Vianne. If you staunchly support the Catholic church, this book is not for you.

The secondary characters are just as good as the two protagonists, and Vianne wins them over one by one, save for a few bible thumpers. A majority of the characters are women, and the female-centric relationships and narrative highlight friendship and community, and especially tolerance for someone else’s right to live and die. Plus there’s river gypsies.

If all you know is the movie, then I’ll admit that yes, Juliette Binoche is Vianne Rocher. The wind is a real character, and the atmospheric wonder is well captured. But the film minimizes the magical realism and religious bigotry, for which the cheesy on-screen romance does make up. The book is better.

Indulge in a little Chocolat!