Saturday, November 19, 2016

Five Quarters of an Orange, by Joanne Harris

I would never have found this book if not for book club, and I really rather liked it. Let's dig into the nuances of that assessment, shall we?

Joanne Harris hit the jackpot with her book Chocolat, a bit of magical realism with a decidedly hedonistic bent. Made into a movie starring the luminous Juliette Binoche and a delicious Johnny Depp, it was a delightful fairy tale that was completely grounded in the petty feuds and the judgmental religiosity of a small French town. The time period is left charmingly vague--it looked vaguely mid-20th century, but could have been set in almost any decade.

Chocolat dealt with women's roles in a male dominated village, issues of racism, domestic violence, and moral rigidity enforced by religious intolerance, but a happy ending was engineered by the protagonist's magical chocolate shop. As I said--a fairy tale grounded in reality.

Five Quarters of an Orange revisits that format, although less successfully over all. We are back in a rural French village, but in two specific time periods--the Occupation by the Germans in WWII, and the present day. The narrator is Framboise Dartigan, who was a nine year old during the events of the war, and who returned as a widow to reclaim her childhood home, while hiding her identity from the villagers who are largely the same people as when she was a child.

There are hints of a terrible secret from the past, and family conflict in the present day that threatens to unmask her true identity. There is a fairy tale element--the existence of a giant pike that lurks in the depths of the Loire. Local legend says that whoever catches Old Mother will be granted one wish. Framboise is determined to catch that fish.

The Dartigan family are named after fruits, and there is a lot of space devoted to Framboise's mother's recipes and Framboise's cooking--food is again a major element of the book.

Parts of this work very well, parts are frustratingly underwritten.

Once untangled from the bouncing around in time, the plot is rather straightforward. Framboise and her brother and sister fall under the sway of a charismatic young German officer named Tomas Leibniz. They pass all the village gossip to him, in return for luxuries that he can procure for them. Framboise doesn't care for the movie magazines and cigarettes--she imagines that she is bonding with Tomas on a more authentic basis. They are both fishers, after all.

Here is where I have to call for a time-out, because this seems like a major miscalculation. Framboise is nine years old. NINE YEARS OLD. It is 1942, in rural France. This is NOT a case where children are immersed in hyper-sexuality and I just don't accept that a nine year old has sexual feelings for an adult male.

I WOULD accept that she was love-starved, was looking for a father figure, or validation, or something. I am not okay with her being presented as romantically interested in a Nazi.

Back to the plot--there is a brief moment of concern that maybe the gossip they are feeding to Tomas is getting people sent to concentration camps, but that tension lasts about a half a page before being dissipated. Tomas is using the dirt the kids give him to blackmail the residents and he is skimming from the requisitions to pad his own accounts.

Things start to fall apart--Framboise's older sister is (almost-but-not-quite) raped by the Germans, an old man ends up dead. The nascent village Resistance is revealed. Mother Dartigan's migraines require morphine that she gets from Tomas--possibly as a payment for her silence about the assault. Tomas makes plans to leave the village, Framboise is determined he should stay (or run away with her) so she catches the Old Mother pike, wishes that Tomas would stay forever, and the wish backfires. Tomas drowns while helping Framboise pull in her trap--the one that Old Mother is actually caught in. So technically she gets her wish--Tomas does not leave.

The three kids panic about the body being linked to them, so they shot Tomas in the head so it looks like an execution. The Germans believe this story, round up the Resistance members and shoot them all in the village square. The locals blame Mother Dartigan, accuse her of being Tomas's mistress, and storm the farm and torch it. The family escapes and flees.

This is the climax of the book, which is as it should be dramatically, which means that all the contemporary family drama is incredibly mundane in comparison. Framboise's older brother sold the family farm to her and then died, leaving a son and daughter-in-law who offer a kind of existential threat to her anonymity. This second generation wants the recipes, wants a career, wants to publish the "true story" of what happened in 1942, none of which Framboise wants. At best, this is a tool for creating tension and mystery--what happened that was so terrible that Framboise is hiding?

Unfortunately, the larger question is: Why does Framboise even want to live in this stupid small village? Once she is there, she is misanthropic in the extreme, operating a tiny restaurant where she refuses to talk to the patrons even. The mechanics of the story are too visible. It's like Harris needed her narrator to be in the village in order to tell the story, but never created a character-based reason for that decision.

This is an ongoing problem with the book--it just needs to bake longer or something? The elements are good, the story is worth telling, the structure is sound, but the whole does not even equal the sum of the parts.

Part of the problem is that the characters are underdeveloped, so it is hard to care--or even remember them. The various townspeople are generically "rural" and "petty" with no real reason to care about them one way or another. Ten people are shot by firing squad due to the blundering of Framboise and her siblings, but they never really came to life so it is hard to care.

I have already expressed my problems with Tomas and Framboise's passion for him. Her siblings are not served by the time jump. Cassis is casually cruel but also dangerously exciting when Framboise is nine, but in the contemporary sections, he is just feeble. None of the characteristics of his youth survive the transition, and there is no explanation of why. Reinette is even more poorly served--she exists to be young and sexy, to be interested in movie glamour magazines, and then to be assaulted. Once that plot obligation is fulfilled, she disappears. In the contemporary sections, she is in a nursing home, apparently completely senile.

There are hints that Harris had more in mind for these characters. She details conflict among the there of them due to the inequality of their mother's bequests. Reinette inherited a cellar of wine that is worth a great deal of money, that Framboise won't touch, that might be the object of Cassis's grasping son. . .a plot element that goes nowhere.

It's frustrating, because this book should be better than it is. It has all the ingredients, but the execution is poor--which is a fitting metaphor for a book that spends a lot of time talking about food.

I wish I liked this better than I do.

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