THE GIRL WITH NO SHADOW
By Joanne Harris
Morrow. 444 pp. $24.95
Writing a sequel to a bestseller is risky business. Add to that an Oscar-nominated movie, and Joanne Harris faced double jeopardy when she sat down to continue the story she had told so deliciously in Chocolat (1999). At the close of that novel, Vianne Rocher and her small daughter, Anouk, fled the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the target of dark rumors and attacks by a hostile, narrow-minded parish priest. They were unforgettable characters. Will readers be pleased or disappointed as Harris makes them grow and change?
Vianne has reinvented herself as the widow Yanne Charbonneau. All she wants is to be accepted, to be ordinary. By now, her daughter is known as Annie and has a half sister named Rosette -- a special child who doesn't talk and refuses to feed herself. The attempt to leave their identities, the villagers and the gypsy river people behind has led the trio from one location to another, fleeing from the well-meaning people who see Yanne as an unfit parent. The three find refuge in Paris, among the narrow byways and antique squares of Montmartre, the village within a city crowned by the white dome of the Sacré-Coeur. There on the Place des Faux-Monnayeurs, Yanne meets Madame Poussin, an old woman who runs a decrepit café. Yanne trades her labor for lodging, and four quiet years pass.
When the old lady dies, Yanne takes over the café and soon converts it into her signature chocolaterie. Three very different voices tell us what then happens at the newly renovated store between October 31 and Christmas Day. At the center is Yanne, committed to eschewing the magic and visions that ended their stay in Lansquenet. She wants a stable life for her daughters and is determined to put aside the supernatural gifts she inherited. She's determined to forget "the magic we'd lived with all our lives, my mother's magic of charms and cantrips, of salt by the door and a red silk sachet to placate the little gods. . . . The wind just blew a little harder, tugging at our clothes, sniffing at us like a hungry dog, moving us here and moving us there."
The second voice is that of Yanne's daughter Anouk/Annie, who is now 11 and growing up fast. For the first time, she goes to a regular school but is tormented by her classmates for somehow not belonging. She turns to her only friend, an imaginary rabbit named Pantoufle, whom we met, often crouched on her shoulder, in Chocolat. And she begins to think about using her own magic to defend herself.
The third voice is that of Zozie de l'Alba, a lovely, gifted young woman who mysteriously shows up one day and volunteers to help in the store. (We distrust her from the start.) She moves into the spare room and sets out to entrance Anouk. She gives her a pair of magical red lollipop shoes "that could take you anywhere; shoes that could make you fall in love; shoes that could make you someone else."
The plot is complicated, and the cast of supporting characters extensive, but each one is a treat: Thierry Le Tresset, the wealthy stuffy suitor for Yanne's hand, just doesn't get strong women; shy Fat Nico, mainlining macaroons, and elfin Alice find each other over cups of hot chocolate; hostile Laurent, a competitive café owner, is won over. The store is crowded with customers looking for something more than chocolates.
What the customers eat and drink at the shop, now called Le Rocher de Montmartre, is such a strong presence in the novel that it is almost one of the protagonists. Should you be a Weight Watchers client or merely a hungry reader, the novel is a torment of mouthwatering descriptions: rose creams and sour cherry gobstoppers; lunes de miel, "little disks of chocolate made to look like the waxing moon, with her profile etched in white against the dark face"; mendiants with "chocolate thin enough to snap but thick enough to satisfy; a generous sprinkle of fat raisins; a walnut, an almond; a violet; a crystallized rose." Even if you don't have a sweet tooth, who can resist "fresh unpasteurized cheeses . . . old matured cheeses and aged Buzet and quince paste and walnuts and green almonds and honey"? Everywhere things to eat!
For any sequel, there has to be a bottom line: Is this as good as Chocolat? Will those who loved the book or the movie be satisfied, delighted, disappointed? The truthful answer -- sorry -- is yes and no. The magic of France, relationships built on truffles, and second sight are just as fascinating here. The narrative is somewhat uneven, though. The legends are not always woven into the story, and the cast of characters is too large to fit into one narrative. Sometimes, the three voices become confused and the magic, heavy-handed. But Roux, the red-headed gypsy, makes a welcome return, and Zozie is a truly satisfying evil conspirator.
Still, Joanne Harris knows just how to interweave lives. The relationships among her amazing characters are perfectly articulated. They find their places in the tableaux, and as the novel tumbles to its Christmas climax, Harris manages to pull all her irons out of the fire -- or perhaps one should say, her chocolate off the stove. ·
Brigitte Weeks is a former editor of Book World.