Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Last Squeeze is the Sweetest

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris


This is the story of Framboise - no, not a bottle of raspberry liqueur (thank heavens), but rather a woman by that name from a farm on the river Loire in the French village of Les Laveuses. This is partially the story of Framboise's troubled childhood with her brother (named Casis), sister (Reine-Claude) and especially her unwell and widowed mother (who was, of course, an amazing cook) during WWII and Nazi occupied France. It is also the story of her no less troubling old age - accounted from the time she returns to the village in her 'retirement', in order to open a creperie. She tries to avoid painfully dredging up her past by using a different name. However, mysteries and provincial villages never mix. This is especially true when a curious stranger serves delicious food (despite her not seeming terribly strange). They are bound to sniff out her secrets and inhale them deeply, much as the pungent release of the scent from an orange that has just had a thumb pressed into is juicy flesh.

This is another culinary fiction book by Harris, which completed her "food trilogy" which started with
Chocolat continued with Blackberry Wine. Usually, a literary trilogy means three books telling different parts of one long story - most likely with the same people or at least the same key families or personalities. While both Chocolat and Blackberry Wine focused on the same town, with many similar people, the main characters of those two books were both outsiders to the area. Here we have not only a new village but also the protagonist is a native born villager who returns to her old home after many years. As far as that's concerned, while you won't feel terribly cheated by Blackberry Wine having some of the same characters as Chocolat, it does seem strange to have a third story in a trilogy that completely ignores all the players from the first two books. Still, this new cast is enjoyable enough so you won't hold this against Harris or this novel.

In addition, of the three books in the trilogy, this story is by far the most complex. Harris carefully balances together both the past and the present in almost equal measures, like a perfect recipe. In Five Quarters, however, the past is not just there for insight into the characters. The past in this book unfolds along with the present in an almost parallel period. In this way, we get to know Framboise as both a girl and an old woman, all at the same time.

None of this means that there are no similarities between Five Quarters and the first two books. There are parallels that point to this being the third book in this trilogy. For instance, in Chocolat, Vianne opens a Chocolate Shop, and in Five Quarters, we have Framboise opening a creperie, with both shops playing important roles. In Blackberry Wine, there is the deception by Marise d'Api (Jay's neighbor) regarding both her daughter's ailment and her husband's life and death. In Five Quarters, Framboise's disguise and different name give her a 'new' past so those who might remember the family, will hopefully, not recognize her.

There is also the food aspect. Blackberry Wine deals less in the culinary and more in growing of edible items and preserving them, particularly wine. Chocolat deals mostly with the preparation and consumption of chocolate. However, Five Quarters combines all of these - growing fruits and vegetables, preserving foods for present and future use, and preparing and consuming the grown, bought and preserved products in gourmet dishes. In this - and essentially when thinking about a "food trilogy," we can easily believe that Five Quarters is certainly the culminating story, although it is a bit of a stretch. 


In this, as in the previous two novels, Harris has a writing style that feels like the writer is chatting with you. It's almost as if an old friend has come to visit and has begun to tell you a slice of their life, in a nostalgic manner. Yet, it is more artistic than that. While it isn't like someone reading floral poetry, it's more like hearing a seasoned actor read a charming children's book - the best words to describe her writing would be comforting and enticing. However, sometimes this informality also tends to being somewhat inconsistent in places, as if the speaker was too tired to use all their creativity. Thankfully, the instances of these passages are very few.

Furthermore, while Five Quarters is by far more plot-orientated than either Chocolat or Blackberry Wine, Harris hasn't forgotten how important well-rounded characters are to a good novel. Moreover, she exceeded both Chocolat and Blackberry Wine with her shaping of her characters with her prose in this book, making them truly come alive for the readers. When thinking back over these three books, despite having seen the movie Chocolat (which can ruin one's ability to
objectively picture the written characters), you might find you can visualize the people in Five Quarters far easier than in the other two books. Moreover, Harris has a unique knack for getting her readers to empathize with her characters, even when they are unsympathetic.

In light of all this, Joanne Harris has given us three very enjoyable reads, despite some minor niggles. To my mind, Five Quarters is the best of these three (although not my favorite Joanne Harris book), with the most well rounded and developed characters, the most involved but comprehensible plot and the most charmingly delicious descriptions of culinary designs, yet. In short, I highly recommend this book and give it a rating of four and a half stars out of five! 


 
"Five Quarters of the Orange" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (eReader formats), as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes, in print from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

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