Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Vianne Rochet is content, selling chocolates from the Seine River houseboat she shares with Roux and their two daughters. Late in the Parisian summer, she notices a change in the wind, and wonders what it portends. When a letter arrives from a recently deceased friend, Vianne Rocher returns for a visit to the village of Lansquenet, where eight years ago she ran a chocolaterie, using her own secret recipes.
Times have changed in the riverside bastide. In Vianne’s long absence, many Muslim families have moved into part of the town, and Father Francis, once her nemesis, hopes she can help him cope with what has grown into a full scale religious conflict. He’s in trouble with the diocese, his bishop accusing him of being out of step with today’s culture, and the Muslims blaming him for the fire that burned down their school. Vianne re-immerses herself in Lansquenet, savoring her memories and drinking in the new ambience, unsettled though it is. And she has a demon of her own with which to grapple.
Joanne Harris has composed yet another lyrical tale, using the tropes of food, water, fire, and empathy to spin it out. Many of the characters, in addition to Francis, return from her first novel, Chocolat (I will always picture Vianne as Juliet Binoche and Roux as Johnny Depp), though she has changed and developed them considerably. The new, Muslim characters are credible and in some cases, delightful. The narration takes place in two voices, Vianne’s and Francis’, and by listening to their perspectives, the reader is drawn into the complexities of the personal and cultural struggles. Vianne continues to possess some “magical” traits, but these are restrained, and it’s a joy to watch her use food and intuition as her bridge to friendship and understanding. As the novel progresses, the growing animosity and danger render its title ingenuous, but the theme and its beautiful execution should give it wide appeal.
Judging from the ending, a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to spending more time with Vianne.
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