Joanne Harris set her breakout 1999 novel, “Chocolat,” in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a fictional village in southwest France. She returns to the same territory in her new novel, “Peaches for Father Frances,” but it’s no longer the timeless setting for a romantic fairy tale.
Eight years have passed since Vianne Rocher and her young daughter left Lansquenet and the chocolate shop she opened opposite the village church on the eve of Lent. She’s now living in a houseboat on the Seine with her lover, Roux, and two daughters. A mysterious letter arrives from her dead friend Armande, beckoning Vianne back to Lansquenet to put flowers on her grave and pick the peaches ripening on the old tree by her house. The letter’s hint of trouble in the village involving Vianne’s old nemesis Father Francis Reynaud and the chance to leave Paris for the countryside prove irresistible.
Things are much changed in Lansquenet when Vianne arrives. It’s Ramadan 2010 and the Les Marauds neighborhood where Armande once lived is teeming with new arrivals from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. A mosque with a minaret adorned by a silver crescent moon stands across the river from the church. The French government has outlawed headscarves in schools and is considering a ban on wearing the Islamic veil in public. Most troubling, Father Francis has been stripped of his position as village priest and accused of setting fire to a Muslim school for girls located in the shop where Vianne once sold chocolates.
Despite this brewing religious war, food is still the universal language. The scent of warm croissant and pain au chocolat mixes with the spicy allure of harissa soup prepared for iftar during Ramadan. Vianne’s magical chocolates and mouthwatering peach tarts offer a bridge of understanding for all but an aloof and impervious newcomer who always appears in a full, black veil with only her eyes exposed. It’s up to Vianne to unravel the secrets hidden behind this woman’s veil in time to rescue Father Francis and save her own daughter.
Vianne’s powers to read the winds and see colors that reveal others’ thoughts may seem farfetched, and the backstories can be confusing. But it is worth immersing yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of Lansquenet’s narrow 200-year-old streets as they open to newcomers. In “Peaches for Father Francis,” Harris effectively updates the “Chocolat” recipe, using the metaphor of food to make the weighty issues of immigration and religious tolerance more palatable.
Robertson is a senior producer at the Diane Rehm Show.
PEACHES FOR FATHER FRANCIS
By Joanne Harris
Viking. 453 pp. $26.95