Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is the third instalment of Joanne Harris’ bestselling Chocolat series. If you haven’t read the books (which you should), you may have seen the lush film based on the first novel in which the themes of expressing one’s individuality and appreciating the good things in life are woven around a story of two misfits who challenge the staid local ways of a small French village. In the film, Juliette Binoche – as the dignified and mysterious Vianne Rocher – and Johnny Depp – as the ‘river rat’ Roux (as tasty as the indulgent chocolates themselves) are perfectly cast and I must admit I had them in mind as I read Peaches.
In this latest tale, Vianne and Roux, along with children Anouk and Rosette, have made a home on a river boat in Paris. Vianne operates a makeshift chocolate shop from the boat and the family has adapted to the city into which the wind has propelled them for the time being. On a particularly stifling day in early summer, Vianne wills a cool breeze to refresh the sweltering river dwellers, and a letter arrives, almost as if blown into her hands, from an old friend in the village of Lansquenet. It is a letter from ‘beyond the grave’, penned by an old lady in her dying days, summoning Vianne back to the village to sort out a little unfinished business. Leaving Roux in Paris, Vianne and her daughters make their way back to Lansquenet, a place with bittersweet memories, eight years after the events of Chocolat.
Arriving in town, Vianne feels that little has changed; however, as she begins to interact once more with the locals, she discovers that Lansquenet is on the brink of ‘war’. The riverside, once home to Roux and his river rats, has been colonised by a community of Maghrébins (North African migrants) whose daily call to prayer rings out from the mosque as a reminder to the largely conservative, Catholic residents that the winds of change are blowing. Most potently for Vianne, her old enemy Father Reynaud (le Curé) who once disapproved so vehemently of her opening her chocolaterie near his church, is a broken man. He has been displaced as the centre of the community by a flashy new priest (who uses PowerPoint in sermons – the horror!) and is accused of setting fire to a Muslim school. From these curious starting points, Harris investigates those timeless concepts of pride and prejudice using Lansquenet as a microcosm of France, or any Western nation , which faces issues of immigration, nationalism and cross-cultural (mis)understanding. The characters on both sides of the divide are multifaceted and defiant of stereotypes, and, while this particular set of stories is wrapped up neatly by the book’s conclusion, the complexity of the issues evoked in any discussion of religion and culture is acknowledged.
Vianne Rocher is the sort of woman I can only aspire to be. Worldy and wise, she never judges a book by its cover; she refuses to let the gossipy whispers of the villagers, nor the whispers in the air (what one of the Maghrébine elders Omi calls, in a delightful bit of onomatopoeia, the waswaas or worry-whispers) taint her opinion of a person until she has made an effort to understand where they are coming from. She is angelic in her capacity for forgiveness and believing that no one is ‘evil’, simply misguided or a victim of tragic circumstance. In this way, Vianne is a role model to all of us who hold prejudices built on nothing but the undertones of a headline or the half-truths of an emotive rumour. And yet Vianne is not flawless; while her gifts of reading auras, Tarot cards and listening to the wind make her extremely intuitive about other people, she is not so enlightened about her own emotional journey. Harris ensures Vianne, despite her clairvoyance, gets as many surprises as the reader as this complicated narrative unfolds.
Peaches for Monsieur le Curé closes several of the doors left open in the previous two novels, but I doubt it is the last we’ll see of these characters. Anouk and Rosette, for example, with their enigmatic imaginary (or perhaps conjured) sidekicks Pantouffle and Bam, have their own stories to tell. Lansquenet seems to make a wonderful canvas on which Harris can paint many more masterpieces.
Want a sneak preview? Click here to listen to Joanne Harris read an excerpt from the book or view the official YouTube trailer.
Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is published by Random House and I thank them kindly for my copy.