When an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, arrives in the French village of Lansquenet and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church, Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious moral danger to his flock - especially as it is the beginning of Lent, the traditional season of self-denial.
This book is popular magic realism for women. Its popularity is no doubt enhanced by the fact that it was converted in to a popular film with heartthrob Johnny Depp as love interest. But the film softened the book's story, the antagonist is the mayor and not Father Reynaud, and the ending ties up the romance nicely.
I very much enjoyed the beautiful descriptions of the sensuous (and sensual) delights of chocolate. Although this hedonism is set against the austerity of Father Reynaud's world view, it is wrong to simply see this as a paganism versus church story. It is equally a story of the arrival of outsiders in a small community. In a small community the arrival of one individual can shift the power dynamics of the village.
The book is about rebirth and resurrection. The action takes place during Lent and culminates with the Easter feast. Some critics have attacked it for being anti-church. But it seems to me that love and forgiveness are shown as the redeeming values in this book.
Reynaud believes Vianne to be a witch, but her magic is not one of spells. She is superstitious, but so is Reynaud. Vianne's magic is in her cooking, her free spirit, her love and acceptance of others. The only clear example of magic is when Vianne and Armande are able to see Pantoufle, the imaginary kangeroo pet of Vianne's daughter. One aspect of the book that helps make it magic realism is the way Harris deliberately does not set the novel in a specific place or time. This helps give the book a fairytale quality as well as universality.
I have two criticisms of the book. Firstly the chapters in the books written from Reynaud's point of view felt repetitive. I understand why that was, but nevertheless... Secondly I found the ending rushed. Otherwise the book was a lovely, if easy, read.