Any book that's made into a movie must have something about it to make it special. And any book that makes its author famous has should be exceptional. Since I loved the movie, when I saw this in the library, I knew I had to read it. Of course, there is always a danger when reading a book before you see the movie that the movie will be a disappointment. And sometimes the opposite is also true. In this case, I have to say that for me, the latter was what happened in my case.
Let me state from the outset that there is nothing horribly wrong with this book. Harris' writing style is ultimately approachable and the text flows at a very comfortable pace. She neither uses overly flowery prose, nor does she go for anything too simplistic. Her use of what is now being called "magic reality" was considered innovative when this book came out, as was her introduction of extensive culinary injections into the text, which are both fascinating to read, and help the reader to escape from their hum-drum existence and become absorbed in unusual situations, despite Harris' asking us to suspend disbelief for some of the more fantastical things that happen here.
The overall feel of her writing reminds me of a wandering brook that trickles along. This can have its disadvantages, as we sometimes wish that the action in the book would pick up a bit in order to inject a touch of variety. This also means that her climaxes in this story don't have as much of a punch as they could have. Having read other of her later novels, I found that she has been able to learn how to build up for a climax better than she did here. Moreover, this book seems to include more than one conflict which means that she needs each of them to come to come to a head separately. This type of writing makes the story both a touch confusing as well as lessens the major focus of the story.
To be more specific, we have the problems of Vianne's opening her shop in this conservative town and the reaction of the priest Reynaud, we have an over-protective mother trying to keep her son away from his grandmother, we have the bar-keeper Muscat and his abuse of his mousey wife Josephine, as well as Vianne's own personal problems which stem from her relationship with her dead mother. Added to this are the gypsies that dock at the town's river and their interaction with both Vianne and the townspeople, as well as a couple other things, and you've got yourself a touch too much going on here. Of course, some people would find this makes the story all the more interesting, but I found that it just made the novel bloated, and had Harris focused on just one or two of these conflicts, and left the others to be more minor sub-plots instead of giving them almost equal weight, the end result would have been more concise and cohesive for me.
The other problem I had with this novel, which wasn't present in the movie, was the time the story is set. Harris made this into a basically contemporary setting of very late in the 20th century, but the movie moves it back to the 1950s. I felt that the earlier setting of the movie worked better for this story than the later one in the book. This is mostly because I find it harder to believe that even a very small town in France would still be that fervently religious in the 1990s, but can accept this better if we look further into the past. Of course, I could be wrong and perhaps there are still today many tiny towns in France that would follow their priest with such loyalty as to react almost totally en mass in accordance to his preaching, but I'm afraid it just doesn't work for me.
On the other hand, Harris is able to develop her characters very fully. Mind you, since I saw the movie first, I did have the faces of the actors that portrayed these characters in my head while I read this. Still, I don't feel that this was a drawback, and cannot tell you that Hollywood made any mistakes in casting this movie, since each and every one of them fit into what I was reading very nicely. What doesn't come out in the movie as well as it does in the book is Vianne's mother and her history, which actually gave me better insight into Vianne and her motivations than the film had time to allow. It is for this reason that I'm glad I read this book, despite the other drawbacks.
Remember, too, that this book is actually the first of a trilogy (followed by "Blackberry Wine" and then "Five Quarters of an Orange"). I personally enjoyed Five Quarters the most, and almost disliked Blackberry Wine, so this book takes second place in the trilogy for me. Still, I can honestly say that each of these books are written to also be stand-alone stories, and I don't think you'll be feeling you've missed something if you don't read one of them or read them out of order.
Overall, I can say that Chocolat is really a very nice novel, but not Harris' best. Harris has definitely grown as a writer since she wrote this book, so if you want an introduction to Joanne Harris, this might not be a bad place to start. However, if you saw and loved the movie they made of this book, you could end up being disappointed if this is the first novel of hers you read.
Still, it is well written, has excellent character development, a lovely style and includes innovative mechanisms that edge away from normal realistic fiction and tickles the fantasy genre. The drawbacks are that I'm still not sure I appreciate the time this story is set in, I think she has too many sub-plots that get too much attention, and I feel the plot has too many conflicts which mean too many climaxes to the story. That makes me think that while I can still recommend this book, I can only give it three stars out of five.