Joanne Harris continues the story of Vianne Rocher, who was first seen in the delightful 1997 novel CHOCOLAT. Most will fondly recall the terrific Lasse Hallstrom film adaptation of the book, which starred A-List actors like Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Alfred Molina and Dame Judi Dench.
As enjoyable as the movie was, it did not come anywhere near the power of the novel and only skimmed the surface of the underlying magic/occult theme that was at the center of the character conflicts. Harris followed up CHOCOLAT a few years back with the second novel in the Vianne Rocher series, THE GIRL WITH NO SHADOW, which found Vianne, her lover Roux, and daughters Anouk and baby Rosette now living in the suburbs of Paris. They cross paths with a powerful witch who pushes the family to the very boundaries of their beliefs and magical powers.
"PEACHES FOR FATHER FRANCIS is an amazingly charming title for a novel but does not come close to describing the tension that builds on nearly every page. Joanne Harris has continued to create an environment that is almost mythical yet remains grounded in the modern world with all the fears and prejudices that come along with it."
PEACHES FOR FATHER FRANCIS opens with Vianne receiving a letter from a deceased friend that appears out of the past. Armande (the role portrayed by Judi Dench in Chocolat) reaches out from beyond the grave in the form of a letter that beckons Vianne and her family back to the village of Lansquenet. It has been eight years since they left following the turmoil of which they were at the center.
The primary reason for Vianne’s departure from Lansquenet was the presence of Father Francis Reynaud. His devout Catholicism caused him to reject all that Vianne was about and he labeled her a witch. The chocolate shop that she ran has remained barren. Aside from that, it appears initially that not much has changed in the village.
Roux remains behind, and Vianne’s return to Lansquenet is with Anouk and Rosette. They find that a section of the village is now inhabited by a large population of Muslim residents who have migrated from Morocco. While some in the village welcome this cultural mix, most are threatened by it. Even though the novel takes place in modern times, there is no mention of 9/11 or the war on terror. Quite simply, the religious differences and fears would exist regardless of what era the book took place in.
As Vianne delves deeper, she finds that many of the residents are changed. Her old friend, Josephine, has a young boy born shortly after her own Rosette and appears to be hiding a relationship with Roux from Vianne. The biggest transition is in that of Father Francis. While he is still not a fan of Vianne’s, he has bigger fish to fry. He is at odds with the new Muslim residents of the village and finds himself seeking out Vianne’s assistance. When he mysteriously goes missing, Vianne must uncover the truth behind the tense relations before it spirals out of control into an all-out riot.
At the center of the Muslim community is the figure of Ines Bencharki, who some claim to be an evil spirit in human form sent to corrupt the innocent. If she is behind the disappearance of Father Francis, Vianne will require much more than good wishes and a few tarot card predictions to undo what is happening in Lansquenet.
PEACHES FOR FATHER FRANCIS is an amazingly charming title for a novel but does not come close to describing the tension that builds on nearly every page. Joanne Harris has continued to create an environment that is almost mythical yet remains grounded in the modern world with all the fears and prejudices that come along with it. The symbolic use of peaches takes on the same power that chocolate did in the first Vianne Rocher novel. Armande’s peach trees come in very handy as the peach itself represents a symbol of eternal life, which transcends all the quarrels taking place within this complex tale.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on November 2, 2012
Peaches for Father Francis