Skip to main content

Five Quarters of the Orange


Five Quarters of the Orange

Read an

Reading Group Guide

know. I know. You want me to get to the point. But this is at least
as important as the rest, the method of telling, and the time taken
to tell… It has taken me fifty-five years to begin."

Joanne Harris writes in her acknowledgments that she gives
"heartfelt thanks to those who have taken part in the series of
armed encounters that became this book." It is understandable that
Harris might have had trouble getting this darker work past her
publishers, who must have been hungry for a sensual and ultimately
redemptive tale like her best-selling novel and fodder for a sappy
film remake, CHOCOLAT. The elements of rich detail that made for
such a treat in CHOCOLAT are here as well but they make for a much
more darkly rendered image, replete with shadings of death and

Framboise Dartigen, the narrator, is the plain youngest daughter of
a widow in occupied France, who returns as an adult under an alias
and the cloak of age to resurrect the burned out remains of her
family's home and reputation. The suspense of finding out the real
truth of the demise of this curiously unsympathetic family can be
alternately engaging and irritating. Whereas CHOCOLAT was centered
on a sort of white witch, a thoroughly engaging woman with the gift
of entrancing closed-minded townsfolk with her delicious wares and
disarming smile, this is more of a crone's tale.

As a child, the narrator (she is too prickly to have such a sweet
name --- Framboise being French for raspberry) is infatuated with a
Nazi soldier, whose actions are driven more by his desire for
selfish gain than the ideas of the Third Reich. Her brother,
sister, and mother are drawn in by his charm and relative power
and, as a result, are later tainted with the label of
collaborators. Fiction that abstains from moral judgment can
sometimes be unsatisfying; without the dramatic tension between
good and evil, flawed and selfish characters have little charm, and
the harm they come to is without interest. However, Harris's
fiction is much too subtle to rely on easy formulaic

Framboise's frequently ill mother, a gifted cook who wills her
diary and recipes to the daughter, is a tortured soul whose love
for her children is soured by her fear and anger. As her children
run wild to escape her shouts and slaps, she succumbs to two
dangerous palliatives, drugs and a forbidden relationship, to
soothe her tremendous migraines that verge on bouts of madness. The
legacy of both her mother's secrets and resilience are the curing
elements in Boise's character.

Many recipes and telling descriptions of food and people are bound
into Harris's tale. Food provides a means of aptly describing
physical characteristics ("her eyes were almost gold, the color of
boiling syrup as it begins to turn"). A simple description such as
"dessert was…a few of my mother's biscuits --- broken, of
course; she sold the good ones, keeping only the mistakes for home"
resounds with meaning. The orange in the title is the fruit whose
smell brings on her mother's attacks and whose skin Boise uses to
conveniently bring on those painful periods that allow her some
freedom from home.

The curiosity and incongruity of the five quarters in the title
should give you an idea of all of the effort that went into writing
this book. It is not a merry lark but a carefully plotted and
executed exercise that relies on previously successful methods.
Harris uses several narrative threads to pull along her reader: the
narrator's obsessive fishing for an elusive and ancient pike that
she believes has cursed her family and the mother's journal,
written in a type of family pig Latin, provide clues to family
secrets. The South of France and its culinary specialties are
lovingly and expertly described to captivate the reader. As much as
many elements of the book echo CHOCOLAT, FIVE QUARTERS OF THE
ORANGE is another kettle of fish altogether.

Reviewed by Patricia Howard on January 22, 2011

Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0060198133
  • ISBN-13: 9780060198138