In my ‘inhaling’ WW2 fiction books, I came across this on the library shelf and decided to try it. Joanne Harris’ “Chocolat” was so popular that it was made into a movie (which I haven’t seen), but her writing was totally new to me.
This book is set in France and has a dual time period; the present, and the 1940’s.
Framboise’s story as a nine year old girl growing up in a small village of Les Lavueses during WW2 France is told alternately with her story as a sixty-four year old widow, “Francoise”, who returns to the village of her childhood, where she starts a small cafe-type restaurant using the album of recipes her mother left to her.
And that is when things get complicated. Her small restaurant becomes so successful that her brother Cassis hunts her up, asking for the ‘loan’ of the recipe album. However, this is no simple album. On the surface this is a book about cooking and culinary secrets, but layered within the album of recipes, are tragic events recorded by her mother that give insights and reveal the truth of the past. Up until now, “Boise” has been able to keep her identity a secret, but once the album of recipes is released to others, her peace and identity will be lost. And when Framboise thinks back upon her childhood, there is a lot to keep hidden.
If anyone can show what it is like to grow up in a highly dysfunctional family, it’s this author.
Within this family of three children, the father has been killed early in the war, and their mother Mirabelle is often ill with migraines that are so debilitating that she takes to her bed for days on end.
“When she felt a migraine approaching she simply withdrew to her room without giving any reason, leaving us to our own devices. So it was that we viewed these spells of hers as a kind of holiday – lasting from a couple of hours to a whole day or even two – during which we ran wild. They were wonderful days for us, days that I wished would last forever, swimming in the Loire or catching crayfish in the shallows, exploring the woods, making ourselves sick with cherries or plums or green gooseberries, fighting, sniping at one another with potato rifles.…”
With the lack of supervision, the reader can pretty much tell that disaster is going to happen for three young children who are all desperate to fill the vacuum of love and acceptance that results from the absence of a father figure. Their mother, when she *is* feeling well enough to be involved, not only works them hard but often acts harshly toward them (it is normal for the mother to swear at her children, for instance).
That is the background of the story. Now, enter the war and with it, German soldiers who occupy the village. Framboise, who is nine at the time of the story, her older sister Reine, and the oldest boy Cassis, begin to realize that the German soldiers will reward them with rare treats and commodities that can be found nowhere else, in return for information about their neighbors and fellow villagers.
Did I enjoy the book? Well, I guess so… although to be honest I must admit that the deceit that Boise uses toward her mother (that trigger her mother’s migraines), was a hard read for me! There were a couple scenes (near the end of the book) that I considered not only too graphic but unnecessary in how they were placed in the story (and I never appreciate profanity. I know authors think they are making the characters ‘real’, and it is becoming more and more common in today’s literature, but in my opinion, it is just tasteless). The plot itself is a clever one, showing how the actions and decisions from the past have led to secrecy, betrayal and distrust even years later.
A very sad part of the story is how divided this family becomes later in life; the enmity and competition leads to much resentment and bitterness that is never healed or resolved between them.
“My mother’s recipes. But I won’t give them to you.”
Laure looked at me, still smiling. I realized that it wasn’t just recipes she wanted, and a cold fist tightened around my heart.
“No,” I whispered.
“Mirabelle Dartigen’s album,” said Laure gently. “Her very own album. Her thoughts, her recipes, her secrets. Our grandmother’s legacy to all of us. It’s a crime to keep something like that hidden away forever.”
The word wrenched from me, and I felt as if it were taking half of my heart with it.”
There were parts to this book that made it hard to put down though, until I finished. I enjoyed reading about the cooking and life in France.
In many ways this book can be classified as ‘multi-layered’, as it portrays not only the simple story of the village during WW2, but also the personal lives and rivalries within one family, both in the past and present.
In “Five Quarters of the Orange” there is much to think about. A sad story of collaboration, greed, revenge, and keeping secrets, this book did have its good points. There is a verse from the Bible book of Proverbs that states “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” If ever there was truth to that statement, it is portrayed in this story when each character seeks to do what they think is right. Although cleverly plotted and written, it is not a happy story even though the author resolves the events for Francoise in the end of the book.
Most importantly,this story illustrates how our actions, even though meant to protect those we love, can have consequences that are drastic and unforeseen. Lies build more lies, and truth, although possibly not obvious to us until hindsight, may be the best option after all.
“I never meant for it to go so far. I wanted her to be sorry. But I never meant for that other stuff to happen. It got out of my hands, though. Like those things do. Like a fish too big to reel in, that takes your line away with it. I tried to make amends, though. At the end. I did try.”