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Everyone in my building is cleaning up a storm today, I can smell the chemicals through the light well that runs through the center of the building. Not me. My body is physically incapable of cleaning today. Growing up, New Years day was about taking down the tree and decorations and scrubbing the house from top to bottom then marching outside and picking up sticks for kindling. My dad attended first a Catholic and later a military school so he was pretty strict about having a place for everything and everything in its place. My pile tendencies and refusal to clean on January 1 are pure rebellion, not laziness.

Our only traditions today involve running and cooking, a 6 1/5 mile loop and a pot of Hoppin’ John simmering on the stove for luck. We wanted to do the Polar Bear Plunge this year at Coney Island then promptly forgot. Oh well. We got our fill of waves last night watching one of the best Hollywood movies ever made: Point Break. Break robbing + surfing + sky diving + guns + car chases + even better foot chases + surfer spiritualism + damn the man + Keanu Reeves, Lori Petty, Patrick Swayze = Good Times made even better with a rose water gin and tonic.

Speaking of good times, it’s time to chat about Joanne Harris’s Chocolat because it’s new-to-me and I’m still up in the air about it. I wish I’d discovered this on a shelf having never heard of it or the movie they made by the same title. Instead I picked it up with high if vague expectations.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

First, I thought this was a love story. Then I kept waiting for Johnny Depp to appear and made the mistake of assuming he was he priest character and that this was going to be a very naughty story indeed. This is a clear and beautifully written book, but it was a struggle for me because I kept trying to squeeze it into the package I thought it belonged in.

It all begins at a carnival in an otherwise invisible small town between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Vianne Rocher and her young daughter Anouk happen through and decide to stay “Till the wind changes”. They rent a small shop with an even smaller upstairs apartment that smells of sadness. The busy little shop soon makes a splash. Vianne’s chocolaterie opens just before Lent when the town’s residents are supposed to resist such irresistible indulgences. It’s the season of self denial and Viane kisses it with candied rose petals, Venus’s nipples and sugared violets. Some are drawn to the sweets, others to Vianne’s knowing ways. And still others are drawn in the spirit f judgement. For instance, every few chapters belong to the local priest across the square.

There is something unwholesome about such a concentration of sweetness. A promise, half fulfilled, of the forbidden. I try not to look, not to smell.

But look and smell he does. He goes out of his way to use his influence to make the town as unwelcoming as possible, but if the Rochers notice they don’t mind. They’re busy making friends with the river gypsies and a handful of locals. The gypsies live as wild and free as Viane’s mother raised her to, but she’s all grown up and wants to make a home for her daughter. For Anouk’s sake, she tries to be less of an other.

Happiness. Simple as glass of chocolate or tortuous as the heart. Bitter. Sweet. Alive.

Harris sets up a hesitant tone early on. You have the sense that Vianne and Anouk’s life could fall apart at any moment, which is underscored by memories from her own childhood. Unfotunatly, this delicate balance gets buried as scowling townsfolk enter the picture,

There was something missing for me in this book and a little too much judgement from the minor characters, making them one-dimensional as if they had no lives outside of sticking their noses up. Stuff, a.k.a. plot, happens in the form of petty back and forths as tensions between the stiffly religious and the grinning gypsies build with Vianne positioned in between. I didn’t find the conflict very affecting. Maybe it was just that most of the mon Père chapters felt extraneous or I kept waiting for the novel to transcend the tiny plotting and be the love story I wanted it to be.

When I finally stopped looking for Johnny Depp and romance, I started appreciating the story for what it’s actually about. A woman who lives life differently, unafraid to come and go with the winds and the abrasive reactions her natural way brings out in others. Loved the writing and early tone, but I’m lukewarm on the story.

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