This is the story of Framboise – no, not a bottle of raspberry liqueur (thank heavens), but rather the 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 the years of 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 the past from painfully being dredged up by using a different name. However, we all know that mysteries and provincial villages never mix – especially when delicious food is being served by a curious stranger (who doesn’t seem terribly strange) and her secrets are bound to be sniffed out to be inhaled deeply by the local folk, much like the pungent release of the scent from an orange that has just had a thumb pressed into is juicy flesh. Sorry, to give you more than this about the plot of this book might spoil your appetite, so that’s all you’ll get.
This is another ‘culinary’ novel by Harris. In fact, from her web page, you’ll find that this book completed her ‘food trilogy’. Hearing this was a disappointment since a literary trilogy should naturally mean three books telling different parts of one very 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 – albeit in semi-disguise – many years later. 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, the story here is far more complex than either of the other two novels. Harris sifts together both the past and the present in almost equal measures which has been carefully balanced like a perfect recipe. In Chocolat there was a bit of that – with Vianne Rocher’s remembrances and stories of her mystical mother (which were the weakest and least interesting parts of that book). In Blackberry Wine we also encounter the past – that of Jay and his own childhood and its characters, as well as his new neighbour’s more recent history. Yet in both these novels, the history of the protagonists was more of a set-up for the action of the book itself, rather than an integral part of the total story being told. In Chocolat we get Vianne’s mother as snippets in flashbacks, which point up both the magical as well as the non-magical in this story. On the other hand, Applejack Joe from Blackberry Wine practically haunts Jay in the present day, as did the bottles of home-made wine – the latter of which was an unfortunate experiment on Harris’ part. (If you want a book where inanimate objects start talking to you, pick up a story by J.K. Rowling.)
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 time-frame. In this way we get to know Framboise both as a girl as well as an old woman, all at the same time. While this isn’t a literary tool that is terribly unique, you may find that when writers use this method, they can often miss out on clarity and distinction between the past and the present, which can make their readers feel muddled when moving between the two eras of their story, or even unable to distinguish between the “then” and the “now” of the action. Another mistake when using this method is to be overly abrupt (i.e. chapter headings with the years) or obvious (i.e. referring to extremely well known events like the sinking of the Titanic in one chapter and 9/11 in the next), making one feel like the writer believes their readers are perhaps too stupid to catch more subtle references. Thankfully, this isn’t the case in this book, and the transitions are both smooth and identifiable, without being ‘slap in the face’.
All of this doesn’t mean that there are no similarities between Five Quarters and the first two books. There are a couple of parallels that do let one see that this could be the third book in a trilogy. For instance, in Chocolat, Vianne opens a Chocolate Shop, and in Five Quarters we have Framboise opening a creperie – and both shops play important parts in these novels. In Blackberry Wine, there is the deception by Marise d’Api (Jay’s neighbour) regarding both her daughter’s ailment and her husband’s life and death. In Five Quarters, Framboise’s past is disguised by her using a different name and making up a ‘new’ past for herself so that those who might remember her and her 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, in particular for the production of wine. Chocolate deals mostly with the preparation and consumption of – what else – chocolate. But Five Quarters combines all of these – the growing of fruits and vegetables, the preservation of these foods as special items for present and future use, as well as the preparation and consumption of grown, bought and preserved products combined to make gourmet dishes. In this – and essentially when thinking about a ‘food trilogy’ – we can easily believe that Five Quarters is certainly the culminating story of the three.
As for Harris’ style as well as her plot and character development, there are some inconsistencies in her writing. When you read a Joanne Harris book you’ll get the feeling like the writer is chatting with you. It’s almost like an old friend has come to visit and has begun to tell you a slice of their life, in a nostalgic manner. And 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.
As for her character development, 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 the essence of a good novel. Moreover, she has 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), of these three books you’ll find you can visualize the people in Five Quarters far more clearly than in the other two books. Moreover, Harris has a unique knack for getting her readers to sympathize with her characters, even when they are unsympathetic ones.
In light of all this, Joanne Harris has given us three very enjoyable reads, despite some minor niggles here and there. Five Quarters is the best of these three books, 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, highly recommended and a rating of five stars out of five!
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