2012 REVIEWS: GENERAL #6

PEACHES FOR MONSIEUR LE CURÉ
Author: Joanne Harris
Doubleday RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Peaches for Father Francis (Chocolat, #3)Chocolat is on my list of favourite books; it has a certain something that draws me back to it over and over again. Is it the title? The setting in a French village? The thought of the rich, thick, chilli-spiked hot chocolate being poured into a cup with my name on it? Is it the main character, Vianne – has she bewitched me from the pages? I’ve read the book several times, as well as its sequel,The Girl With No Shadow. Did I want to read Peaches for Monsieur le Cure? Need you ask?

While The Girl With No Shadow was set in Paris, ironically a vibrant place where Vianne’s essence seemed to pale, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure returns to Lansquenet, where Vianne brought colour and passion. Eight years after leaving the place she loved best but swore she’d never return to, Vianne lives in Paris with her two daughters and Roux. As the “warm and playful” wind kicks up – the wind that makes Vianne restless and think of other places, other smells, other times – she receives a letter from her old friend Armande. It’s a letter from the grave, for Armande died just before Vianne left Lansquenet to follow the wind. “You did Lansquenet a good turn once, though not everyone saw it that way at the time,” the letter reads. “… sooner or later Lansquenet will need you again.

Upon returning to her old home, Vianne is surprised at the changes that have taken place. Women veiled in black, the scent of spices and peppermint tea – and there, on the bank of the river Tannes, facing the church, a minaret. Her former chocolaterie was, until recently, a rigid school for Muslim girls, but has just been damaged by fire. The offender is unknown, but it is widely believed to be Monsieur le Cure – Vianne’s former nemesis. The disgraced priest is not sure where he stands with Vianne after so long, but as tensions mount, he realises that she may be the only one who can save him.

As with the previous Chocolat books, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure is told from alternating viewpoints – this time from Vianne and Monsieur le Cure’s eyes. Both have distinct voices. Le Cure’s passive-aggressive tone has taken on a strong note of anxiety, tempering the arrogance and self-righteousness that characterises him. It contrasts beautifully with Vianne’s calm and non-judgemental voice; she assesses, watches and waits. By the end of Chocolat, all I felt was pity for le Cure; by the end of this book, I liked him a little. Vianne is as convincing as ever; more than ever, she is someone I would love to meet.

The return to Lansquenet brings a return to familiar characters such as ugly-duckling-turned-swan Josephine and the gossipy Caroline Clairmont, as well as a swag of new characters like the veiled (in more than one way) Ines Bencharki and  her extended family. I particularly liked Omi, whose cheekiness was refreshing in the face of the rigidity of her beliefs; she reminded me of Armande – I’m sure the similarities did not escape Vianne’s notice either. I found some of the male Muslim characters suffered from stereotyping – think rigid, patriarchal men – but their leader, Mohammed Majoubi, was a refreshing contrast.

Going back to the word veiled – that’s such a loaded word in this book. In their own way, the characters are all veiled, be it their motives, their inner thoughts, their beliefs, their words … I love the imagery the word conjures up in relation to this novel. Everyone in Peaches has secrets; invisible or in-your-face, the veils are there.

Despite the serious themes of religious intolerance (on both sides) and prejudice, food still plays a central role. (Which is good for me, because I love reading about food.) Peaches, truffles, chocolate … as I read, my tastebuds were quivering (and I confess to eating more than a few Lindt balls). Harris has a gift for infusing her narrative with sensual, evocative language and she does so with her usual finesse in Peaches.

There is so much more I could write, but I’ll make it simple. Harris’s books make me want to eat good food. They make me want to come back again and again, because I’m always so sad to leave them. Peaches for Monsieur le Cure is no exception. I loved it. I’ll be returning to Lansquenet soon.

Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


PICTURES OF YOU
Author: Caroline Leavitt
Allen & Unwin RRP $23.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Pictures of YouBittersweet and delicately written, Pictures of You warmed my heart and left me wanting more. It’s one of those books you know you’ll pick up again and get something fresh out of.The story begins with one unforgettable moment where lives are forever changed; on a foggy highway two cars collide, killing one of the drivers. April is running from her past, towards a new future, as is Isabelle. Both from the same town, the women’s lives intersect in a fleeting yet lasting way on this highway. The survivor, Isabelle, is left to pick up the pieces of her life; she was running from an unfaithful husband and has to start again in more ways than one, all with a town looking at her with judgmental eyes.

April’s son, Sam, witnessed the accident. Fragile and hanging on to hope, he comes up with his own way to deal with the loss of his mother. Isabelle, he decides, must be an angel. The two are inexplicably drawn to each other, against the wishes of Sam’s father, Charlie. He wants closure – Why was April running? What does Sam know? – and Isabelle is just a reminder of the grief he is trying to contain. And yet, he too feels drawn to Isabelle; he soon sees that she, like him, is a hurting person trying to pick up the pieces of lives shattered. As Charlie looks for answers, he is forced to ask, “How well do we really know those we love?”.

At the heart of this beautiful novel is the concept of forgiveness. How do you forgive the unforgivable? Is true forgiveness really possible? What happens if forgiveness doesn’t come from the deepest part of you? Leavitt explores this concept with grace through the stories of Isabelle, Charlie and Sam as they move past April’s death. The reader is compelled to consider their own view on forgiveness: if they were in Isabelle, Charlie or Sam’s shoes, could they forgive?

And of course, there is love as a theme that underlies the novel. Love is lost and found. Love is misunderstood, left to flounder. Love is flawed and yet perfect at the same time. Love is the hope that carries each character through the devastation they feel – but in what way will love ultimately be expressed? Without spoiling things, I’ll say that the ending was surprising. It’s not what I expected and had this been a Hollywood movie, it may have been different. But it’s a realending. It’s bittersweet and each of the characters has to make peace with what could have been and what is.

Each of the characters undergoes a great deal of change throughout the novel, right up to the end. Just like all of us, they are flawed individuals trying to make the best of life, whatever comes their way. I really warmed to Isabelle and wanted nothing more than for her to find a sense of peace. April was less developed as a character; the reader is left, like Charlie, with lots of questions about her.

I loved this book and it’s on my “read again” list. It’s full of heart and it digs deep. Share it with a good friend or your mum. Talk about it over coffee at an informal book club. It’s that kind of book.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.


PROPER CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF FRIENDSHIP, THE
Lisa Verge Higgins
Allen & Unwin RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Proper Care and Maintenance of FriendshipWHEN a beloved friend dies, three remaining friends discover that she has ensured her memory will live on in distinctive and meaningful ways.

Each is sent a letter from Rachel, asking them to do her a final favour, which in turn will challenge them to face their biggest fears and enrich their lives.

Some friends know you better than you know yourself – they’re the ones who give a much-needed nudge when things are heading the wrong way.

And that’s really the essence of The Proper Care and Maintenance of Friendship.

Author Lisa Verge Higgins has written a touching book about what friendship, motherhood, marriage really means.

It’s a poignant reminder that some friends are for life, and we can usually count the truest ones on one hand.

Share this with your best friend.

Visit  Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.