It’s been seven years since Vianne Rocher was last in my life – and what a long seven years they were. Within half an hour (yes, that long!) of copies of The Strawberry Thief appearing on the shelves in my local bookshop, I’d bought my copy and was alternately stroking the cover and inhaling that delicious new bookness at my desk. That was quite possibly the longest day at work. Needless to say, I started reading as soon as I got home and I positively devoured the first half of the book – it was like catching up with my most beloved old friends; Vianne and her girls, Reynaud, Joséphine, Roux (*swoons slightly*). But as I passed the halfway point I had to force myself to slow down … this was a book I was in no hurry to finish. The enchanting and addictive atmosphere is as delicious now as it was in Chocolat.
contemporary fiction | magical realism
dust cover blurb
Vianne Rocher has settled down. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the place that once rejected her, has finally become her home. With Rosette, her ‘special’ child, she runs her chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has become a friend.
But when old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, the life of the sleepy village is once more thrown into disarray. The arrival of Narcisse’s relatives, the departure of an old friend and the opening of a mysterious new shop in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that mirrors the chocolaterie, and has a strange appeal of its own – all seem to herald some kind of change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder …
Author – Joanne Harris | Published by – Orion Fiction in April 2019 | Pages – 362 (hardback)
“There’s always a moment before a storm when the wind seems to change its mind. It plays at domesticity; it flirts with the blossom on the trees; it teases the rain from the dull grey clouds. This moment of playfulness is when the wind is at its cruelest and most dangerous… No the cruelest moment is always the one in which you think you might be safe; that maybe the wind has moved on at last; that maybe you can start building again, something that can’t be blown away.”
Picking up The Strawberry Thief was like breathing out after holding my breath for a very long time … for seven years, to be exact. And what a difference those years make; Anouk – Vianne’s eldest daughter – is now 21 years old and living in Paris with her boyfriend, Jean-Loup. And Rosette – just a youngster when Peaches for Monsieur le Curé was published in 2012 – is now 16 and beginning to explore her niche in the world.
The story loops between the present day and Narcisse’s childhood years, told through a written retrospective bequeathed by Narcisse to a bewildered Francis Reynaud. Having never left Lansquenet in almost 80 years, there is little Narcisse hasn’t borne witness to, and his manuscript holds true to his blunt nature; at times unflinchingly honest, whilst unexpectedly lifting a dreadful burden from Reynaud’s shoulders.
Narcisse has become fond of Rosette; almost as affectionate and protective of her ‘otherness’ as Vianne. When he bequeaths a 16-acre parcel of oak woodland to Rosette it reveals a sentimental streak hidden amongst his curmudgeonly character. The woodland offers Rosette a newfound sense of independence; a tranquil hideaway amongst the whispering trees and delicately abundant wild strawberries. However, it also invokes a spiteful fury in his money-hungry daughter, Michèle; an anger that crystallises further with the blossoming friendship between Rosette, and Michèle’s son Yannick.
Enter Morgane Dubois.
With startlingly cold-hearted speed, Michèle has cleared Narcisse’s florist shop and rented it to a tattooist; one with with uncanny and preternatural divination skills. Morgane’s arrival is captivating and bewitching to both Vianne and Rosette, although it stirs very different responses for mother and daughter. For Vianne, she carries unsettling echos of Zozie de l’Alba (Lollipop Shoes pub.2007), whilst Rosette’s encounters bring a sense of illumination and self-discovery.
I could write endlessly about the events as they unfold in Lansquenet … but that would be crossing the line (waaaay over) into an unforgivable spoiler. And – let’s face facts – Joanne Harris tells it so much better than I ever could. So I’m going to stop writing about the details of the story now.
But before I stop writing this review, I wanted to try to put my impression of the undercurrent of this book into words…
I couldn’t help feeling that this book told the story felt by mothers of daughters the world over. The tugging of invisible threads that run between a mother’s heart and her daughter’s. The recognition of the inevitability that they will step out into the world and live a life that doesn’t revolve around them; the loosening of ties; the growing distance both physically and emotionally; the re-shaping of relationships as a daughter discovers a new type of independence. There were many poignant situations in the book that I’m certain every mother or daughter will be able to relate to.
“I hear my mother’s voice in my mind. Children are only on loan, it says. One day, we have to give them back. I wonder if Anouk will hear my voice at the back of her mind. Or will she simply move away into a different orbit?”
Whilst you could enjoy this story without having read its predecessors, I would heartily recommend you do start from the beginning so as not to miss out on the rich and intoxicating history of its characters; to experience the complexities of the friendships and relationships; to see Anouk and Rosette grow; to understand why the wind plays such a crucial role throughout the four books. It’s been 19 years since Chocolat was first published – and if you’ve seen the film (*swoons slightly – again – at memory of Johnny Depp playing Roux*) great, but I’d urge you to read the book too so as not to miss out on its utter deliciousness. We had to wait until 2007 for The Lollipop Shoes, then wait again until 2012 for Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, and then another wait for The Strawberry Thief. So, if you’ve not yet read any of these books – sigh – I utterly envy you; there is a wonderful story awaiting you, and you get to binge read from one to the next without the lingering lonely years between.
set the atmosphere
Hot chocolate of course. There are endless recipes available to follow, but this one (which I found on the PardonYourFrench blog) is one of my favourites … just add a cheeky pinch of chilli, vanilla and spices to match it with Vianne’s signature chocolat chaud.
And to nibble? Well, there are just so many choices from Vianne’s chocolaterie: mendiants, bitter orange slices, truffles, cake, Easter eggs. Or how about ripe, juicy peaches from Armende’s garden, or (perhaps most appropriately) tangy-sweet strawberries from Rosette’s woodland?