Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is a sleepy little French village tucked between Toulouse and Bordeaux. It has one main street bordered with “dun-colored half-timbered houses leaning secretively together.” A Catholic church, “aggressively painted white," sits in the middle of the square. Two hundred “souls” at most live here, ordinary people who are a little pale, a little drab, a little wrinkled. It is carnival time, Mardi Gras, just before Lent. A parade is passing through town; there are carts decorated with balloons and streamers and papier-mâché scenes from fairy tales. A small band is playing a lively march. Costumed children are running to and fro collecting the candies thrown at them from the parade floats. Everyone is in high spirits except for a black figure bringing up the rear. That black figure is Francis Reynaud, the village priest. In the carnival crowd are two newcomers, the beautiful and mysterious Mademoiselle Vianne Rocher and her six-year-old daughter, Anouk. Vianne and Anouk are looking for a new place to live, and they decide to stay in Lansquenet.
Vianne is a talented chocolatier who soon converts an abandoned bakery into a delightful “choclaterie artisanale” called La Céleste Praline. The intriguing Vianne possesses an uncanny knack for figuring out everyone’s favorite kind of chocolate. Despite the townspeople’s protests that they have given up chocolate for Lent, Vianne tempts them with just the right piece—“It’s your favorite kind,” she persuades them. Soon they cannot resist. Not everyone is happy about this. Almost immediately, the village priest, Père Reynaud, pays Vianne a visit. It is Sunday and he has missed Madame Rocher and her child in church. Vianne corrects him: she is “Mademoiselle” Rocher. Reynaud tries to hide his shock. Perhaps Vianne was too busy with La Céleste Praline to attend church just this one time? No, Vianne explains to monsieur le curé. She and Anouk would not have been in church anyway: “We don’t attend, you know.” Reynaud cannot hide his shock this time, but Vianne remains direct and firm. She wants the priest to understand that she has no intention of becoming one of his parishioners.
Reynaud and Vianne wage a subtle war against each other. They each have their allies, and Vianne begins with the town’s marginalized characters. Her first customer is Guillaume Duplessis, a lonely man whose only friend is his dog, Charly. Vianne quickly discerns both Guillaume’s and Charly’s favorite kind of chocolate and the two make daily visits to La Céleste Praline. The chocolate’s magical properties seem to help Charly, who is dying. Narcisse is a local farmer who brings Vianne geraniums from his nursery, gives work to people who need money, and lets gypsies camp on his land. Vianne then befriends Joséphine Muscat, a battered wife who steals a box of chocolate almonds from La Céleste Praline. Vianne pretends not to notice. She establishes a spiritual connection with Joséphine and senses troubling vibrations. Armande Voizin is the town eccentric, reputed to be a witch herself. She remembers the town priest when he was a little boy and knows a dark secret about him. Armande maintains an adversarial relationship with her only daughter, Caroline Clairmont, who forbids her son, Luc, to visit his grandmother. Although she is a diabetic who is warned not to eat chocolate, Armande adores the rich, chocolate drinks that Vianne concocts and quickly becomes a loyal customer. None of these are fond of Francis Reynaud, preferring to spend time in La Céleste Praline rather than St. Jérôme Church. Soon Vianne meets all of the townspeople and learns as much as she can about their lives. Reynaud is envious and complains that it took him six months before he learned that much about “his flock.” Vianne also welcomes and befriends the gypsies who come to Lansquenet every year.
Reynaud's allies include Georges and Caroline Clairmont (Armande’s daughter and son-in-law), Joline Drou (the local schoolteacher), café owner Paul Muscat (Joséphine’s abusive husband), and other members of the town’s Residents’ Committee. These prominent townspeople have their own agendas for being on Reynaud’s side. Caroline Clairmont is hoping that Père Reynaud can help convince her mother, Armande, to listen to the doctors, stop exacerbating her diabetes by eating chocolate, and move into a nursing home. She accuses Vianne of almost killing her mother (Armande goes into a diabetic coma after eating too much chocolate) and turning her son against her (Vianne encourages Luc to meet with his grandmother in La Céleste Praline). Paul Muscat is hoping that Père Reynaud can convince his wife not to leave him (Vianne allows Joséphine to move in with her and gives her a job in the chocolate shop). Joline Drou is hoping that Père Reynaud can convince Vianne’s daughter, Anouk, to...
(The entire section is 2007 words.)
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