This book is one of the best novels I have read in a long time. I wrote this long review of the book back during the summer, but was too tired and too ill to edit it. I hate to just move it in to the trash so I’ve decided to publish instead. Happy reading!
Almost two weeks ago, since I read this book during a bout of flu. In the middle of the summer, yes. The book made such an impression on me though, that I have not been able to pick up another book until I get some thoughts off my chest, about this book! As many probably know, the same author wrote “Chocolat”, that was made in to such a nice film. I only ever saw the film even though the book has been sitting on my shelf for years. This book though, caught my interest when the book club magazine talked of her “food books”. A mysterious widow settles in a little French village, keeps to herself but her past starts catching up to her. That is how that magazine described it, and saying the past, meant WWII. How could I resist?
It was an easy book to read when I was ill. I had to sit up, not being able to breathe, and with a splitting head ache, the book still had me captured. The chapters are so short that you can take lots of breaks if need be. But as soon as I put it down, I picked it up again and decided to open it up again for just another chapter. It was so captivating, tragic and sad, all in one. But the book actually ends on a happy note, if one doesn’t mind “old wrinklies” finally finding love, a little bit too late perhaps in life? definitely having missed out on a lot.
Perhaps I liked the book so much because I can relate to the orange smell giving a migraine attack. I don’t know if migraines give you a better smelling sense or if you already have a very sensitive nose which causes migraine attacks when you smell something strong like perfume, cigarette smoke or oranges? Oranges, if you think about it, have an extraordinary strong odour. I can sit in the car and smell the first peel a child creates in the back seat and just like Mirabelle in the story, scream about it, because if the child continues peeling, I will have a migraine by the time we reach home. At the same time that I scream I demand all the children to open ALL windows in the car, to air the smell out. No matter if it is snow outside and freezing cold. THAT is how bad an orange smells in my view. And in Mirabelle’s.
Poor Mirabelle is the villain in the book but also a very, very sad victim. She is a woman not from the village, Les Laveuses, an outsider, that struggles to keep a farm going on the outskirts of the village, and who somehow has got it in to her head, that children should be treated like trees in her orchard. Be pruned early in order to turn out alright in the end. This means that she never shows them any love, or not in the ordinary way. Her way of showing love is to teach them things, let them lick a bowl… But that doesn’t always count in the eyes of a child. The father Dartigen is not a very dominant figure in the book. We only learn that he stays with his violent wife, to save the children from her attacks, but he takes a very small part in the story since he dies early on in WWII.
Mirabelle Dartigen’s migraine attacks moves through the book like a red thread, and they are way bad. They start coming on by her smelling oranges, even when none are present. She becomes violent and has to be locked up in her room, during the attacks, taking morphine. After her husband’s death, she has the sense to go and lock herself in, but it means that during her attacks, the children can roam around like they want to and the villagers gossip about how unruly they are. They do not pay attention to that the children actually go to school, are clean and proper. Their mother is not a neglecting mother at all.
The problems start in 1942, during the German occupation of France, and 60 years later. Harris jumps back and forth in time, and does not give away the entire story, until the very last pages, so the book really reads as a great mystery. And perhaps it is wrong to divulge too much about it. But since Amazon gives pretty much all away in their description of the book, I think I can tell quite a bit. The book starts when Mirabelle’s daughter Framboise Simon, starts having troubles in Les Levauses, in the latter part of the century. When Mirabelle died, she left three things for her three children to inherit. The burned down farm in Les Levauses, a collection of champagne bottles in the cellar of said farm and a recipe book combined scrapbook and diary. The farm was left to her son Cassis, that had no interest in it, spending all his time on alcohol in Paris. The champagne was left to the daughter, Reine-Claude, the village beauty that everyone thought would go so far, and yet ended up moving from man to man, working in a pornographic cinema in Paris, and then ending up dement in a nursing home. Framboise, the ugly youngest girl, being a spitting image of her mother, inherited the recipe book. And she actually decided to do something with the odd book, after her husband died at sea, and her daughters left home. Daughters that she kept at a distance since she never knew how to show love, never having been shown such at home.
As a 40 something young widow, she bought the farm from her brother and built it all up again. She did not introduce herself to the villagers since she did not want them to know who she was. So they all think she is Francoise Simon, while indeed she is Framboise Dartigen, that grew up with many of them. After restoring the farm, Framboise really starts to study her mother’s recipe book and tries to make sense out of all the scribblings. Some is in a made up language that her father jokingly used. The diary notes are not in order, often having something to do with the recipe in question, and she is trying to put together what sort of a person her mother really was. She also is starting to cook the recipes and soon she has her own little créperie and lots of customers. That is when real trouble starts. Her brother Cassis feels that she had no right to the recipe book and ought to share. His son Yannick has married a greedy food journalist named Laure, that also has a restaurant in Angers, the nearby town, and Laure wants those recipes to boost her career. And she will stop at nothing. She gets hold of one recipe and publishes it in her magazine without Framboise’s approval, which puts Boise as she is called, on her guard. But Laure doesn’t stop there. One day a young man shows up opposite the farm and puts up a fast food stand which brings noise, motorcycles and scary youths. All Framboise’s customers vanishes because of all the noise from the food stand across the road, the only customer remaining is old Paul. She has not liked him coming to her place but now he really shows what a friend he is, since he bends backwards to help her, not only with getting rid of Luc, that turns out to be Laure’s brother, but also finding out what really happened when they were children and trying to stop Laure from publishing Framboise’s dark family secret.
The diary and the oranges are the clues to it all. And while the modern things happen, Framboise reads her mother’s scarce notes and remembers how it came that they left the village all those years ago. In 1942 the Germans were never stationed in Les Levauses but in Anger, the bigger town. But some of the Germans needed a place to relax, a place away from prying officers and rules, so they headed to the village as often as they could. In 1942, Framboise is a 9-year-old girl running wild, since the village school closed down the previous year and the village children had nothing to do but wait till they became old enough for the school in Anger. That is where 12 year-old Reine-Claude (called Reinette) attends school and Cassis, 14 years old. Their 12-year-old neighbour, Paul, does not attend school at all, since he has to help on the farms. He is considered stupid by everyone because he stammers but Framboise knows differently. They spend a lot of time together since they live so close, but Paul also has the worse crush on Reinette.
But Framboise is not satisfied with just playing with this friend by the river Loire. She finds her older siblings’ lives so much more interesting and wants to be part. They keep her out, but when she starts finding lipsticks, comic books and other things that she knows her siblings could not possibly have bought, she blackmails them in to taking her to the pictures. There is the problem of her mother though who will not allow such a thing. Framboise is a clever little girl and steals an orange at the market in Angers, being watched by a German soldier. It’s easy for her to provoke a migraine attack in her mother, with the help of the orange. She does it in a very sinister way, taking the peel and first hanging it by the stove, unseen, so it’s heated up smelling really strong and then she stuffs it in to her mother’s pillow. It doesn’t take long before her mother is ill. At the cinema, she sees her brother speaking to the German soldiers and especially to one, which turns out to be the witness to her orange theft. She soon puts together the truth behind the cigarettes, lipsticks and comic books. Her siblings are informants to the Germans and not having a mother that can teach them right from wrong because she is always busy, they don’t understand how wrong it is to gossip and tell things about their neighbours. They are too young to understand what can happen to the people they tattle tale on. Framboise is very excited about her new-found liberty and uses the orange peels more and more often to have freedom. Not understanding that this makes her mother a morphine addict and that she has to pay in some way to get hold of morphine pills. It’s a very, very sad consequence of Framboise’s dealings.
The German, Tomas Leibniz, who witnessed the orange theft, becomes the focal point in Framboise’s life from the time she meets him to the end. And not just her life but her mother’s, her siblings’, the entire village’s and his fellow soldier’s. Someone on Shelfari wrote that he was a kind soldier that gave children sweets. If you think that a sociopath is a kind soldier and a sweet man, fine. I did not see anything charming in this man. Some people probably saw through him and saw him for what he was, a ghastly user and abuser. But small children like Boise and Reinette, who were both in love with him, did not. A smile from him and they were willing to do anything for him. He spoils them, and he gets all the information he needs to blackmail people, so he can send things home to his parents, but also live a comfortable life himself. The children do not see how wrong they are acting when a teacher suddenly disappears, a woman has to close down her fabric shop… For months Tomas comes to the farm and flirts with Reinette, swims in the dangerous river with Cassis and helps Framboise with catching the old pike that she is obsessed with catching. Not even the fateful evening when Tomas has told the children to show up at the local bar La Rep, and Reinette gets raped and an old drunk, Gustave, gets killed when he tries to stop it all, does Framboise think ill of Tomas. Surely he could not have been laughing when Reinette was raped? Surely he was not supplying those Germans with women?
Thanks to Mirabelle’s morphine addiction, caused by all her migraines, she is not looking after her children. And Framboise who is so much in love with Tomas, does everything to have him to herself by the river. One day she gets her wish. He comes, but he is in trouble for the murder at the bar and all other extra curricular things he has been up to, so he tells her he can never come again. The story goes that if you catch the old pike and she slips away, you will be eternally unlucky, but if you catch her she will grant you a wish. That day, with the help of Tomas, who is forced in to helping, Framboise catches the old pike and her wish is that Tomas will stay there forever. He has had to dive under branches and roots in the river, to get the trap untangled, and well he really gets to stay forever…
Like everybody else, Mirabelle fell in love with her drug supplier and had to pay in nature. What else? After collaborator and nazi whore had been painted all over the farm, and strange threats arrived in the post, it was hardly a surprise that the family became outcasts in the village. After the rape, Reinette was not the same, but her day of glory came when Paul, her admirer, chose her for harvest queen in Anger. But the whole community being so hostile towards them, it wasn’t the happiest occasion for the family. And when Tomas body floats up on a sandbank, villagers are executed since it is thought that he was murdered. The villagers marches to Mirabelle’s farm to burn it down and kill her family. For some reason, her being different, her always being ill with migraine and the children running wild, and the times being the way they were, noone used their brains to think. Anger took over and they all became killers, even the 16-year-old Jeanette who wanted to have become the harvest queen.
Noone died that night but the whole family fled and the only one that came back, was Framboise, decades later, when noone but Paul remembered her. What makes this book so very good and sad was how wrong things can become when there really isn’t a bad intent. In a way, Framboise wicked ways caused everything bad to happen but one can not fully blame a 9-year-old girl! She didn’t know how bad a migraine can be, she just saw her mother’s attacks as a chance for freedom. And with her mother ill in bed, the mother could not teach the children right and wrong concerning the occupying force, nor how dangerous gossip is.