Joanne Harris weaves wonderful stories with sensuous descriptions of food and recipes in her novels. Though she received the most press for Chocolat which was adapted into an Academy Award nominated, star-studded film, I think Five Quarters of the Orange was a better book. It’s true, Chocolat’s descriptions of its chocolate confections were more mouth-watering, but the story behind Five Quarters of the Orange was a more engaging one, making the luscious food descriptions the perfect garnish.
Narrated by the widow Framboise Simon, Five Quarters of the Orange takes place in a small village outside of Angers on the banks of the Loire river, Les Laveuses. She has returned to her family’s farm in her old age and under the anonymity provided by her married name. Armed with her late mother’s album of recipes and cryptic journal entries, she opens a small restaurant and believes she has put behind her the infamy her family gained during the German occupation of World War II. Until a jealous relative begins causing problems for her restaurant and threatening to reveal her true identity to her neighbors.
Harris uses Framboise to tell both stories side by side, the narrative of nine-year-old Framboise and the story of Framboise at sixty-something. The balance between the two is perfect. It sounds like listening to an old woman recounting tales from her childhood with all of the small diversions and distractions that entails. For a while the narrative of her return to Les Laveuses was my favorite. The flashback seemed too cryptic while the battle between resentful family members was everything fighting family should be. However, the flashback story quickly became just as engaging and the back and forth between the two created a wonderfully paced book.
Not all readers will like Framboise as a character. She’s mean. She was cruel as a child and she’s vindictive as an old woman. Her sense of self-preservation brings out the worst in her and yet, I still found her endearing. Framboise is not a character who can be intimidated easily, worried and affected by what people think of her. She knows what she wants and she doesn’t let herself feel guilty about how she gets it (except once, but you have to read the book to find out).
Even though the reader finds out about halfway through the novel what happened during World War II that has Framboise withholding her true identity even sixty years later, the truth behind the events isn’t predictable. There were several different ways I thought it might be headed and I was still taken by surprise. At the same time, it wasn’t a surprise because it was overly complicated. The climax was brilliant in its simplicity.
Thought the wrap up for the World War II narrative was fine, I was a little disappointed with the novel’s final conclusion. It was a little clichéd and I would have loved more details regarding the reactions of the estranged family Framboise was battling in the more present-day narrative, but it didn’t bring down the book as a whole or drag on too long after the reader’s interest peaked.
Overall, Joanne Harris proved she should be known for more than just the book she wrote that became a movie with the unforgettable combination of Johnny Depp and chocolate. Five Quarters of the Orange has me excited to check out some of her other novels, including Blackberry Wine, though I’m a little hesitant regarding The Girl with No Shadow, the sequel to Chocolat (sequels always make me nervous).