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REVIEW:  The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

REVIEW: The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

Loveliest-Chocolate-Shop-in-Paris

As dawn breaks over the Pont Neuf, and the cobbled alleyways of Paris come to life, Anna Trent is already awake and at work, mixing and stirring the finest, smoothest, richest chocolate; made entirely by hand, it is sold to the grande dames of Paris.

It’s a huge shift from the chocolate factory she worked in at home in the north of England. But when an accident changed everything, Anna was thrown back in touch with her French teacher, Claire, who offered her the chance of a lifetime — to work in Paris with Claire’s former sweetheart, Thierry, a master chocolatier.

With old wounds about to be uncovered and healed, Anna is set to discover more about real chocolate — and herself — than she ever dreamed.

Dear Ms. Colgan,

When I started this book, I wasn’t at all sure I was going to continue with it. The opening scene is rather confusing – something about a terrible accident where Anna Trent works then her drug hazed, dream state in hospital before she finally learns what happened to her. It’s an injury which isn’t immediately obvious but one which throws Anna off balance, literally and figuratively. Then Anna’s former French teacher in school is introduced to the story. Suffering from (terminal) cancer, Claire sees in coaching Anna’s French language skills a way for them both to pass the time while being treated. I sat, thinking, where’s Paris? Where’s the chocolate? Where’s the romance? I had to wait a bit but soon things began to unfold.

This isn’t exactly a chick lit book and it’s not a straight romance either but rather a blending of the two. It’s told mainly from Anna’s first person point of view with briefer bits as told by Claire both in the present and in third person from her past in Paris as a young woman. In Anna we get a sorta chick lit heroine who has been in a low end job, doesn’t have a great love life, has some body issues but who then gets a chance to start over – in another fetch and carry job.

No Anna’s not immediately put to work in Paris creating mouth watering confections. It’s pot scrubbing and cleaning as she gets her language feet under her and begins to see the difference between the industrial, mass market chocolate churned out by the gross she’s been used to making and the hand crafted, ethereal, made by a master artisan, to be sold that only that day creations of Thierry Girard.

Between Thierry’s lunch excursions to out of the way restaurants and her flamboyant roommate Sami’s nighttime forays to Parisian hotspots, Anna begins to learn the city in a way the tourists never will. She also meets Laurent, Thierry’s estranged son, gets to know her two coworkers and dodges Alice, Thierry’s witchy English wife.

But in Claire’s story, the book departs from fluffy mode and gets layered with a touch of women’s fiction. Claire was also a young Englishwoman who ventured to Paris and found love. She then lost it and has spent a married lifetime wondering what went wrong. She sees in Anna a way to gently probe for answers before her time runs out. When I started reading the sections about Claire, I was bracing for depression yet this is handled so delicately that I was glued to the page to discover What Happened Next.

Yes, it’s bittersweet and an exercise in What Might Have Been but by the end of the book, Claire sees what becomes obvious to the reader – perhaps her life did unfold the way it was meant to. Maybe she had a better marriage than she would have had others not interfered. Just possibly making a life with someone who commands center stage and needs all eyes on him 24/7 is an exhausting business. I like the way this all revealed without Claire or Thierry becoming the fall guy or being turned into a nasty piece of work. And one character even gets some redemption by the end.

The romance of the book is divided between the two sets of lovers. In the first half, there is the beginning of Claire and Thierry’s instant attraction which burgeons into their lifelong, though thwarted, love. It’s not until the second half of the book that Laurent and Anna begin to get past their prickly introduction and the issues which initially divide them. I would have wished for more time to be spent on them but, as with fine chocolate, less is more. Plus they do see each other at less than their best and under trying circumstances so all their flaws are laid bare, understood and accepted.

I would be remiss without mentioning the other love affair here – that with the city of Paris itself. The descriptions of Paris are lush and loving but also honest about her shortcomings. Paris won’t always work well for everyone and the key seems to be in the way that you approach your time there. Anna and Claire are both willing to slip into the joy and magic of the City of Light and in doing so, the reader is just as seduced as they are. By the time I finished, I was in total agreement with the view of the French expressed by Anna’s coworker who questions “why accept a bunch of mediocre when you can have a bit of divine?”

“The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris” is a tale of two Englishwomen in Paris, of love lost and found, of reaching for the best instead of settling for what you can get, of acceptance and making peace with the past. If the threads of the story are a bit neatly tied up at the end, the tying is gently and lovingly done. B

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Chocolate Touch by Laura Florand

REVIEW: The Chocolate Touch by Laura Florand

Dear Ms. Florand:

As I started this, wondering if it would grab me as much as the previous books in the series, I came across this line: “He had to form himself back up out of a puddle behind the counter after that laugh. He hoped he was subtle about it, and she didn’t realize he had melted to the floor.” And there I was, sucked in again.

The Chocolate Touch Laura FlorandThis is the essence of romance, Florand-style. The characters are so extravagant — they have feelings, and they have them all over the place. They care about art and beauty and embody those feelings in the creation of delicious food and delicious sex. Incidentally, Dominique Richard had barely spoken to Jaime when he had that thought about her. But when she asks him two weeks later how long they’ve known each other, he says “a month” — “didn’t she realize that those two weeks she’d sat in his salon counted as knowing him?” Chocolate maker Dom fell in love with Jaime while he watched her sitting in his salon eating his creations, “as if his very existence made up her happiness, as if she could spend hours soaking him in and still want more of him.” In Florand’s Paris, this is all it takes — this is everything.

Darker in tone than the previous books — even Dom’s chocolates are called “dark and cruel” by critics — The Chocolate Touch is about two wounded people. Chocolate industry heiress Jaime’s self-worth is wrapped up in activism and helping others, and after a traumatic event she no longer feels capable of it. (Did you know the chocolate industry uses child and slave labor? Like I said, dark. And potentially life-changing, if you like chocolate. And freedom.)  Dom grew up with violence, and fears replicating it if he ever forms a real relationship. (Astonishingly, this is something he’s working on in therapy, which makes him pretty much a romance novel unicorn.) Their mutual low self-esteem makes it hard for them to understand how they’ve wound up together and what it means.

Their romance left me just a little uncertain. Is their love based on anything lasting? Are they too needy and codependent? It helps that they’re aware of this problem themselves:

He saw her sitting in his salon, the still, absorbed focus of her. She had him. He was her healing. Thinking about it that way made him a little uneasy. He could feed her senses and her body, he could warm her, he could let her soak up everything she wanted from him. But… he wasn’t a doctor.

Later, Jaime promises him, “I will get stronger than this.”

Even so, I wasn’t as completely convinced of Happy Ever After as I like to be at the end of a romance. One of the aspects I loved about the previous Amour et Chocolat books is that the main characters were always on the same wavelength (whether they realized it or not.) It’s partly why the stories feel so magical — the whimsical metaphors or outrageous plans are a shared insanity on their journey to each other. There was less of that here, and less of the enchanting writing that expressed it. Instead, there’s more of an emphasis on physical sensuality — which is also gorgeously written, in that way that sort of creeps through my entire body and makes me shiver with delight. But it doesn’t have that inevitable feeling.

There are plenty of funny parts (falling for Jaime, sister of the heroine of The Chocolate Thief,  puts Dom in the position of in-law to one of his most hated rivals and the makers of mass produced American chocolates!) but even the offbeat, imaginative touches often go in a darker direction:

Sometimes he still stood in the little corner of glass and stone, smearing chocolate prints against the glass as he watched her, the poor child outside the candy shop he couldn’t quite believe he had the right to enter. The size of his chocolate prints, compared to the foggy ones they often had to wipe off the front of his own windows was… humiliating. Like his insides should really have grown at the same rate as his outsides.

Don’t you just want to kiss him on the nose and say “poor sweet baby”? My heart broke for Dom, even more when he thinks, “Even when he was six years old, the people who loved him thought he deserved what he got.” And Jaime is very touching and appealing as well. Even with some quibbles, it was lovely to see the tenderness they found with each other, and I finished the book with the precious and elusive Happy Sigh. B

sincerely,

willaful

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