Chocolat By Joanne Harris: Uv Book Club Book Review, Questions & Discussion Summary

Posted at 02:36am on 3rd December 2009

BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS

26th November, 2009

BOOK: CHOCOLAT BY JOANNE HARRIS

Themes: Bigotry, self-righteousness, exclusivity, conformity, authoritarianism, deference and submission, self-denial, ageism and class-ism versus: generosity, open-heartedness, acceptance and inclusiveness across class and age.

OUTLINE OF CHOCOLAT

A single parent, Vianne, arrives in a small French village at the beginning of Lent with her young daughter, Anouk, and sets up a chocolate shop. Naturally, the local priest, Reynaud, is incensed: this is a temptation too far – for his parishioners. When a group of gypsies also arrives in the village and Vianne befriends them against the priest’s express wishes, the conflict increases, dramatically.

QUESTIONS

  1. Vianne uses one thing, chocolate, to change a community. What else does she use? How does this challenge you to think about what you could offer in your community?
  2. There is one point in the film when Anouk runs home from playing upset because the children are taunting her about her mother's red shoes: '...are you satan's helper?', she cries, 'well, it's not easy being different..' Vianne replies....'why can't you wear black shoes like the other mothers?' Anouk responds. What do you have that marks you out and distinguishes you from other people?
  3. What does Vianne do for the role of the single mother?
  4. In what ways is Vianne spiritual and in what ways worldly?
  5. What role does the wind play in the story?
  6. What is the mayor's main issue in his life?
  7. How does Vianne see lives change?
  8. The battered wife, Josephine, and Vianne have a conversation one day, after Josephine starts talking about her husband. 'Things could be different for you, Josephine. Serge doesn't run the world.' 'He might as well!' 'Is that what you believe?' 'I know it.' 'Then it must be. Must be true. My mistake.' How significant is what we believe in the choices we make in life?
  9. What really happens, do you think, when the jar of Vianne's mother's ashes is smashed on the steps?
  10. What blessing comes in Vianne's life when the generational curse is broken? What actually is the curse?

DISCUSSION SUMMARY

1. Acceptance versus Authoritarianism: Vianne's generosity of spirit and open-heartedness is in stark contrast to the mean-spirit and judgemental attitude of the Catholic priest, Reynaud. Although one might say, cynically, that the French woman’s largesse – in giving away chocolate samples left, right and centre – is simply a commercial ploy, a loss-leader, there is no doubting the warmth of her character and the genuine interest she shows in the other villagers.

The priest’s self-righteousness is, obviously, to be condemned, whilst Vianne’s liberal attitudes and acceptance of others is something which, as Christians we should be cultivating. One member of the group spoke of her workplace, and the affirmation she feels she should give to younger women colleagues. “Going home to your other job, now?” she asks at the end of a shift, making a point of validating the importance of home-making and child-rearing.

2. Conformity versus Individualism: Vianne's red shoes are, in the eyes of the priest, the epitome of her loose morals and the seductive temptations she practises with her chocolate. Preaching against both at his Sunday Mass, he urges villagers to boycott her shop. In truth, however, it is her non-conformity and lack of submission to his authority which grates with him.

Whilst admitting that twenty years ago, and more, apparel and conformity were imperatives in church – suits and ties for men; skirts and hats for women - we felt, as a group, that this was less of an issue nowadays. A casual dress code is adopted by most members of the church we attend, in recognition that God accepts us as we are. However, for those members who enjoyed ‘dressing up’ or who felt that to do so was a mark of respect for the Lord (in the same way that a visit to Buckingham Palace would demand a token of esteem for the Queen) there was mutual respect. Very short skirts and bare midriffs in the young were, however, seen as lacking in taste.

3. Single Parenting:The group felt that, generally speaking, single parenting tends to be perceived by most people as deficient in comparison to two parent families. There's no doubt that Vianne does a good job in promoting the role of a single mother as not only achievable, in terms of her parenting skills, but also in respect of her business acumen. In other words, being single, a good parent, and a working mother are not mutually exclusive.

4. Spirituality: Aspects of the formal 'spirituality' shown by Vianne in the book (though they appear to be less of an issue in the film) are somewhat suspect from a Christian perspective. Some book club members talked about 'forking': the action which Vianne makes with her fingers out of sight, under the counter, in respect of people she dislikes.

It is, according to one member of the group who has come across it whilst on duty as an Street Pastor, a gesture with thumb and little finger, and is a form of bringing down a curse on another. That same member pointed to a sense of the book’s author, Joanne Harris, having thrown everything into the mix in order to make Chocolat, her first novel, more marketable.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that despite the links with witchcraft through her mother, Vianne certainly displays, in her lifestyle, the love and acceptance which Christians are expected to show towards those who are old, downtrodden, lonely and bullied within their communities and families, and to the river gypsies, the outcasts of society.

5. Acceptance of Change: It is clear, at the outset of the book, that Vianne, together with her mother and daughter, have been 'on the move' throughout their lives, and that the wind is the wind of change that moves them on. It is the wind which blows Vianne and Anouk into the village, and the wind that heralds other changes – either benign or malevolent.

From a literary point of view, the wind might be seen as a motif – a pattern which winds its way through the narrative and helps to shape and inform its themes.

6. Temptation & Transference: The questions for the study of Chocolat by the book group, were compiled by someone who had seen the film rather than read the book. In the book the antagonist is the priest, whilst it is the mayor in the film. The group, as a whole, felt that this considerably detracted from the theme, which was to do with real goodness and righteousness versus the sham of religiosity.

The zealously fasting priest (mayor in the film) is self-righteously determined to bring his flock (community) into line beneath his authority. However, as he feels the influences of temptation in his own life (for food, chocolate in particular, and for Vianne’s womanly charms) he increasingly practises denial, transference and projection, blaming others for his own, unperceived, faults and bigotry.

This is a manifestation of the heart being ‘deceitful above all things’ and is something we are all capable of succumbing to at times.

7. Kindness: Vianne's many kindnesses help a number of people in the village to come to terms with loss, and issues of loneliness, persecution, and old age. For instance, there’s the old man who invests all his affection in his dog which is fatally ill with cancer and eventually dies; and the old woman whose daughter, the mayor’s wife, is fanatical about her mother’s diabetes and wants to put her away in a home, rather than allow her some small pleasures in life.

As a group, we considered the question of whether we ever stop to wonder about the impact we may have on the lives of others? Even a half-hearted kindness may be hugely influential in the life of the recipient. Various personal examples were cited in this respect.

8. Perception is Truth: Josephine, the woman whose husband beats and abuses her, believes that there is no way out: no escape. Until Vianne shows her otherwise! Perception is truth - so says the idiom. And it's true. What we believe shapes and dictates our behaviour. It is crucial in our lives. We need, therefore, to ensure that what we claim to believe is what we actually do believe; and that what we believe is worth believing in.

9. Freedom: Vianne is about to move on again when the urn in which her mother's ashes reside falls from a hastily packed suitcase, falls down the steps, and smashes to pieces - blowing in the wind. Symbolically, and perhaps psychologically, she is thus freed from her mother's influence and, therefore, her inability to settle down and deal with the here and now. We need to be aware of the traditions, superstitions, obsessions and affections which tie us to a transient past and prevent us from facing up to the present and the future.

10. Conclusion: The ending of the book and film differ considerably, so it was difficult to draw a conclusion. In the film a happy ending is achieved in that Vianne settles down; in the book she is pregnant and about to repeat the experience of being an unmarried mother.

Whilst it’s good to study books in different genres and from diverse authors, there is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned here. As happened when the group studied Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, the film version is often very different to the original book. That, in itself, may throw up issues of interest and contrast – as occurred with Chocolat. But it is something that we should keep in mind when selecting books, and when compiling questions. All in all, however, this is a book I think we all enjoyed reading.

This book review, the questions, and book club discussion summary above may be used, freely, by other readers' groups, on your website or blog, or in printed format. Please include the following by-line:

© Mel Menzies 2009, Author and Speaker - www.melmenzies.co.uk
Used by permission

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