Eight years after the events in Harris’ best-selling Chocolat (1999, etc.), her heroine is summoned back to the French village she once revitalized with confections.
Vianne Rocher is living in Paris on a houseboat with her husband, Roux, and daughters, Anouk and Rosette, when a posthumous letter arrives from Armande, the crusty old lady who had been her ally in upsetting the straight-laced mores of Lansquenet. This tiny hamlet once more needs Vianne’s intervention, Armande writes, without specifying exactly what is amiss. When Vianne arrives, she is surprised to learn the person most in need of rescue is her erstwhile antagonist, the tightly wound, chocolate-hating Monsieur le Curé Francis Reynaud. As parish pastor, Reynaud has been supplanted by a young, smug priest who wants to turn Mass into a PowerPoint presentation and replace the church’s old oaken pews with plastic chairs. The Bishop has not been pleased since rumors started circulating that Reynaud set fire to a school for Muslim girls housed in Vianne’s former candy shop. Reynaud is suspect because he clashed with the Imam of Les Marauds, Lansquenet’s Muslim neighborhood, over the installation of a minaret complete with call to prayer. The school’s founder, Inès Bencharki, whose brother, Karim, is the Imam’s son-in-law, has, along with her charismatic sibling, introduced Muslim fundamentalism into previously free-wheeling Les Marauds, requiring her pupils to veil themselves. Vianne is drawn into the fray when she takes in Alyssa, the Imam’s granddaughter, whom Reynaud saved from drowning herself. As they forge a gingerly alliance, Reynaud and Vianne suspect that Inès and Karim are hiding something, and those secrets, when revealed, are shocking. While Harris’ loving attention to the details of cuisine, French and Moroccan, and the daily lives of the eccentric village characters conveys a certain charm, the indolent pace of the novel doesn’t accelerate until the puzzle explodes with incandescent intensity near the end. The patient reader, however, will be amply rewarded.
A slow buildup to a breathtaking finish.