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'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' is the third in Joanne Harris's series of novels featuring Vianne Rocher. It resumes Vianne's story four years after readers left her and her partner Roux and her two daughters, Anouk and Rosette, living on a houseboat on the Seine in Paris (in 'The Lollipop Shoes') and eight years after she and Anouk left the village of Lansquenet-sur-Tannes.
Having thought she'd never go back there, a letter from a (now dead) friend calls her back to Lansquenet. Someone is in trouble, the letter says, and needs Vianne's help; that person would never ask for help himself. Leaving Roux behind, Vianne and the girls return to the village where Vianne had her pretty little chocolate shop; while outwardly nothing appears to have changed, there is something unsettling that Vianne can't put her finger on.
Running into Pere Reynaud, the village priest, she learns that North African immigrants have settled into the abandoned tanneries on the southern side of Lansquenet and although they had initially integrated well with the locals, relations between the two communities have become strained more recently, culminating in accusations flying in all directions after a fire in Vianne's old chocolate shop, now being used as a school for Muslim girls. As she hears more Vianne understands who it is she has to help but has too much water already passed under the bridge?
Fans of Joanne Harris will be delighted to know that 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' is a return to form; I've always loved the way that her writing uses techniques that stimulate the senses and this novel is all the richer for that special knack. Of course Vianne does make some of her famous chocolates and Harris describes them with mouth-watering brilliance but it is the descriptions of the North African sweets and pastries that I relished most as I devoured this novel.
I have to confess that I've never really been a fan of the 'magical realism' of the Lansquenet/Vianne novels and I still maintain that I can only finish a Joanne Harris novel by reading fast and skipping the flowery passages that focus on aspects of the weather as human characteristics or those irritating inner thoughts of Vianne as she tries to read someone's aura. Yet, such is the strength of the other elements - the characterisation and the setting in particular - that I can ignore that irritating 'other worldliness' that has come to typify her style.
In 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' Joanne Harris has crafted a clever and thought provoking tale. The integration (or not) of Muslims in France (and across western Europe in general) is a topic seldom out of the headlines; I thought it interesting that Harris tells this tale in Lansquenet, a sleepy backwater in comparison to France's big cities where most immigrants settle. The niqab was banned by the French government in 2011, a move that is still hotly debated; only one woman in Lansquenet wears the niqab and in doing so she becomes the central focus of the tension between the two communities, coming in for attacks from both sides. However, the growing disquiet in Lansquenet arises not only from the conflict between east and west or Muslim and Christian but also between the young and the old, the conservative and the progressive.
The narration alternates between Vianne and Pere Reynaud and highlights the different interpretations individuals can have of the same events depending on gender, experience or religion. Chocolat took place during Lent while 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' takes place during Ramadan, a move that sets up a fascinating contrast between the two stories. In the past I've thought of Joanne Harris as a writer who paints a good story but in this novel I found myself more appreciative of the construction of the story, how the separate strands come together and how the reader's own preconceptions are challenged.
Although there are references to the some of the events in the earlier novels I strongly recommend that readers follow the books in sequence. It's been a few years since I read both books and I felt like I was coming to the series for the first time. 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' ties up some of the loose threads from Chocolat and 'The Lollipop Shoes' but it's done in such a way that might tempt one to read the earlier novels to find out the whole story rather than acting as a spoiler.
I still wish that Joanne Harris would leave out the mystical stuff; 'Peaches for Monsieur le Curé' is such a good story that it really doesn't need fortune telling and colour reading. Aside from my 'bete noire' I loved this book. Joanne Harris continues to excite the senses and feed the imagination. This story kept me reading into the early hours and the climax came as a bolt out of the blue. I don't love everything about Joanne Harris's novel but I'll be the first to call 'Encore!'
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy, and for the little pot of delicious peach jam that came with it. I ate it on brioche as I sank into my armchair and drifted away to the south west of France.
This review first appeared at Curiousbookfans.co.uk.
Anyone who read and loved "Chocolat" (made famous by the film adaptation of the same name starring Judi Dench, Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp) will doubtless be pleased to see Vianne return to Lansquenet in this the third novel featuring the famous Vianne Rocher: chocolate queen, pagan, witch. A letter from Armande - beyond the grave - encourages Vianne to return to Lnsquenet, albeit reluctantly at first, and when she arrives, things are somewhat different to when she left.
In the same style as Chocolat, the novel is written from the alternating perspective of Vianne and Renaud, the "Curé" referred to in the title whose role in this novel is as equally prominent as it was in Chocolat. A little mellower this time around, Renaud gets into a spot of bother which, as the novel progresses, becomes increasingly dangerous, and which eventually relies on Vianne's intervention before things get fatally out of control. Unlike the Lollipop Shoes, Renaud, rather than Vianne, is the character whose existence is threatened; unfortunately the reader - perhaps with his earlier conduct in mind - has less sympathy for Renaud than for Vianne and when he does encounter danger, there isn't that same need to keep reading and hope her fate is secure. Having said that, the book does hook you and the storyline, with its subtle twists and turns, does keep your interest, despite the book's overall length which is a little more substantial than Chocolat.
Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is nicely written, and the comforting presence of Vianne is enough to encourage you to read on. Like an old friend, she hasn't changed but sadly, neither have her children. Anouk is no longer tailed by an imaginary kangeroo but remains somewhat immature; however Rosette remains an irritating presence throughout the novel, repeating "bam" over and over and doing very little else.
Despite this, the novel is a good read: entertaining, thought-provoking and satisfying. It's lovely to see you again Vianne: I hope this isn't the last time.