Book Review - 'Peaches for Father Francis'

Friday, October 5, 2012

By Joanne Harris. Viking, 452 pp. $26.95.

Vianne Rocher is living a perfectly contented life with her two daughters on a houseboat in Paris. The most dramatic her life gets is the daily musings of her teenage daughter, Anouk, and the silent interactions between her younger daughter, Rosette, and Bam, Rosette's invisible friend.

One day, near the end of summer, Vianne receives a letter in the mail from an old friend who had passed away years ago.

"Take a trip back to Lansquenet," the letter said. "Bring the children. Put flowers on an old lady's grave. Say hello to my grandson. Have a cup of chocolate."

In addition, Vianne was to pick the peaches that grow up the side of the deceased woman's house. "I'd hate the birds to get them all," she said.

Eight years ago, Vianne had moved to Lansquenet with Anouk to start a new life. She opened a chocalaterie and established herself in the community. Now, however, the community has changed and moved on without her.

The priest is pretending that things are normal, but Vianne can see he is in trouble.

The chocalaterie, the place she used to call home, was turned into a school and burned to the ground.

The village that her friend lived, Les Marauds, the ghetto, now inhabits an entire sub-community of Muslims that don't quite fit into the culture of the area.

"Peaches for Father Francis" is beautifully written, with an atmosphere of France available simply through the way Harris strung her words together. Vianne is mysterious, not quite the prim French woman. Though her secret is buried deep.

There is a sense of disjointedness in the first part of the book. Things are not quite right: From Vianne's perspective, the town has changed as the "foreigners" have moved in and introduced their practices and beliefs. The priest sees the other angle: The town may have changed, but the people have not. Lansquenet is a small town: Word travels fast and rumors race to the finish. The rest of the town believes that Father Francis had something to do with that fire in the old chocalaterie, but only he knows the truth.

And, through each thread of uncertainty, a Woman in Black appears, clothed head to toe in a traditional Muslim "niquab." She seems to be everywhere, though others that know her only speak her name in hushed tones.

"Peaches for Father Francis" is the third book of Harris's that features Vianne. Her first, "Chocolat," was made into a movie featuring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

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