Luscious, delicious, heavenly – summer peaches are at the heart of Joanne Harris’s latest novel, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, the third book featuring the queen of chocolate, Vianne Rocher. It is eight years after the events in Chocolat, and Vianne receives a letter from the dead – Armande Voisin, summoning Vianne to Lansquenet once more to work her magic and set things to rights. It is couched in the simplest of requests – to merely go and gather the summer peaches and make sure that the curé is given some. But Vianne is older and wiser now, and feels much more settled down living with Roux on a houseboat on the Seine, with all of Paris at her fingertips and her two daughters Anouk and Rosette to keep her grounded, and at first she tries to resist.
But the wind, the clever wind, will blow as it will, and Vianne is swept along with her girls, back to the little village on the river Tannes, back to the friends she made there and the memories. All the characters are there – Joséphine Muscat, who has left her abusive husband, Caro Clairmont, still as gossipy and self-righteous as ever, and of course the curé, Père Reynaud, who had such troubles with Vianne the first time around. But this time the trouble is not from the priest – no, it is from the new inhabitants of Les Marauds, a run-down part of Lansquenet, along the riverbank and filled with tumbledown houses that tend to flood with the storms of late summer. These new inhabitants are refugees of a sort – called Maghrébins, they are Muslims, chased out of other villages and cities, who have found a place to stay in Les Marauds.
At first the new inhabitants seem to get along fine with the villagers. There are collaborative coffee mornings and shared football games in the town square. But soon something seems to change, with the arrival of Karim Bencharki and his supposed sister Ines. For there is certainly a mystery around them as Ines keeps her face veiled at all times, and seems to encourage all the young women of Les Marauds to do the same. Almost overnight the Maghrébins turn inwards, and cut off their interactions with the Lansquenet locals. Once more the villagers of Lansquenet find themselves at odds with the outsiders, this time on their doorstep instead of on the river, but it has the same feel as eight years before.
At the same time, Père Reynaud is struggling too – his flock has turned against him and his conservative ways and has imported a new priest – Père Henri – whom they share with other villages. He does not live among them and he wants to modernise the church – two things that Père Reynaud finds incomprehensible. Coupled with his inability to keep cordial relations with the Maghrébins he finds himself alienated on both banks of the river, with Vianne Rocher like salt in the wound.
As these worlds collide, is Vianne’s magic enough to calm the unruly wind and bring the two halves of Lansquenet back together? Once again, Joanne Harris has created a deeply luscious story, filled with half-glimpsed magics and of course chocolate and french pastries at the heart of everything. If you don’t finish this book hungering for the depth of the relationships she has described in your own life, you will at least come out hungering for some fresh french pâtisserie!
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