On the cover of my copy of Chocolat there is a picture of Juliet Binoche feeding a piece of chocolate to Johnny Depp. It suggest a light, sexy romance, belying the dark story in the pages that follow.
It is a dark story that begins when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk move to a small French town. Vianne opens a shop where she sells delectable chocolate treats, but the way the townspeople react one would think she was selling porn or drugs. Lent has just begun and Vivanne's chocolates suggest self-indulgence and gluttony during a time that is usually reserved for self-denial and introspection. The local priest in particular sees Vianne and her chocolates as a personal affront to him and his authority. That isn't to say that Vivanne doesn't have her supporters. After all, who can resist chocolate? Some people in the town visit her shop secretly, others boldly.
Vianne's standing in the community is not helped by her friendliness toward the gypsies who briefly visit the town. The hostility of the townspeople towards the gypsies, and especially of the local priest, is frightening and disturbing. Although they have done nothing to harm anyone else, many assume the gypsies to be criminals. Local business owners refuse to serve them in their cafes and shops.
Chocolat was not at all what I expected. I expected romance and magic (I picked this as the magical realism entry for the literary exploration challenge), but instead found racism, domestic abuse and death. Not that there wasn't joy as well. There are those in the town who don't view a chocolate treat as a sin, who treat the gypsies with kindness and respect, and who stand behind a wife who decides to leave her abusive husband. There is a hint of magic. Vianne somehow knows what each person's favorite type of of chocolate treat is just by looking at them. She can sometimes sense what people think and feel. And then there is the wind...when Vianne came to town it seemed that the wind was bringing some kind of change, or at least that is what some in the town say. It reminded of Mary Poppins, only darker and without the fun adventures involving chalk art on the sidewalk or tea parties.
I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that not to expect the book to by anything like the movie.