Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Peaches for Father Francis

Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris
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Recommended for: Harris fans, francophiles, lovers of sensuous prose and well-drawn characters

Peaches for Father Francis
By Joanne Harris

Who didn’t love the movie Chocolat, so French and atmospheric and whimsical, and just a little dark around its edges? Then what a treat to discover that the movie was true to the book it was based on, except that the book was even better. And then a few years later, to find a sequel, just by accident, on a browsing expedition to the library, The Girl with No Shadow (or The Lollipop Shoes, it’s been published under both titles), also wonderful, although darker. (Chocolat Noir, perhaps.)

By now I know to look for further books about Vianne Rocher and her family, and here it the latest: Peaches for Father Francis. This addition to the Chocolat literature is surprising, and much more inventive than its pedestrian title. Vianne, who has been living with Roux and her children on a boat on the Seine in Paris, still making her chocolates, finds herself tugged back to the scene of the first novel, the village of Lasquenets, when she receives a posthumous letter from a dear friend. On arrival with Anouk and Roxanne (Roux has declined to come) she discovers that a neighborhood of Moroccan Arabs has sprung up in the abandoned tanneries on the river’s edge, and an ethnic war appears to be simmering, even though the village was at first accepting of the newcomers.

The lightning rod for this tension is Inés Bencharki, her face hidden by niqab and her attitude equally scornful of her Christian and Muslim neighbors. She even rebuffs Vianne’s attempts at rapprochement (and we know how persuasive her chocolates can be!) Vianne finds an unlikely ally in Father Francis, the curé, who has begun the painful process of learning how to bend his stiff-necked ways, although the effort appears likely to cost him his parish.

There is also the charismatic Karim Bencharki, the brother of Inés (or is he? Village gossips say otherwise), whose modern, Muslim tolerance seems to be somehow encouraging the intolerant. Anouk Rocher is fifteen now, and we suspect, not far from her first love. Roxanne is four, still an inhabitant of her own little world, and communicating with her mother more through love than language. Vianne’s friend Josephine appears to be harboring a secret that may be harmful to her and Roux.

So there is a lot going on in this book, plotwise. The conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in France is a political reality, and Harris treats it thoughtfully, always showing us the humanity of her characters, and always hopeful of the possibility of détente, although the revelation of Inés Bencharki at the end of the novel is shocking. Vianne hopes that she may be simply friendly toward the Muslim half of the community, and she begins with a gift of peaches.

Years of travelling with my mother have taught me that food is a universal passport. Whatever the constraints of language, culture of geography, food crosses over all boundaries. To offer food is to extend the hand of friendship; to accept is to be accepted into the most closed of communities.

One of Joanne Harris’s strengths is her sensuous prose, and the Moroccan characters give her new and exotic flavors to explore:

I followed Fatima into the house, making sure to leave my shoes at the door. It was pleasantly cool inside and smelt of frangipani; the shutters closed since midday to guard against the heat of the sun. A door led into the kitchen, from which I caught the mingled scents of anise and almond and rosewater and chickpeas cooked in turmeric, and chopped mint, and toasted cardamom, and those wonderful little halwa chebakia, sweet little seasame pastries deep-fried in oil, just small enough to pop into the mouth, flower-shaped and brittle and perfect with a glass of mint tea . . .

To disclose more of the plot would be to spoil it. Suffice it to say that although certain plot threads are resolved, there are enough left blowing in the wind to keep us hopeful of still another book.

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Reading Progress

January 11, 2013 – Started Reading
January 12, 2013 – Finished Reading
January 14, 2013 – Shelved as: favorites
January 14, 2013 – Shelved
January 14, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed

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