The February Book Review

This month was slightly more fruitful in terms of reading than January, although not much. I managed to read a novel and a novella. I’ll be covering both in this review. Please beware, there are spoilers ahead. 

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris is an English author, best known for the novel Chocolat, adapted for film in 2000, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Chocolat is the first novel of a series of four, which I finished two years ago and completely fell in love with. So, naturally, I wanted to read more from this author, and “Five Quarters of the Orange” seemed appropriate since its main character is briefly mentioned in the Chocolat series. 

What’s it about?

The main character, Framboise, is also the narrator of the novel that takes us through her childhood years during World War II. The story takes us back and forth in time, with chapters covering Framboise’s childhood and adulthood, in present times, when she’s in her 60s. The story starts when she returns to her hometown, Les Laveuses, under a different name (Simon), opens a patisserie and tries to lead a normal life while hiding her true identity – Framboise Dartigen, daughter of the infamous Mirabelle Dartigen. 

We see two sides of Framboise and the town, the past, and present. For the past, the story unfolds rather slowly, with Framboise taking her time, describing her childhood home, the farm, her family, and their relationships, especially the one with her mother, who was suffering from a mental disorder that would make her lose control, have short-term memory loss and terrible headaches. And here’s where the title comes in – Framboise’s mother hated oranges and the smell of them would trigger her illness’ symptoms. 

The little girl, then no more than 9 years old knew of her mother’s sensitivity and took advantage of it every time she could get her hands on an orange – seems cruel, isn’t it? But this way, she had more time to play, to run wild, without being reprimanded by her mother. The child didn’t feel the love of her mother and so she reciprocated in kind. Besides, her father died in the war and there was no one else around to keep her in check.

The story truly starts when Framboise’s elder brother and sister start attending school in Angers, the closest town, and become spies for the Germans stationed there during the war. Framboise enters the “game” as well and becomes fascinated with one of the German soldiers – Tomas Leibniz. The young soldier had a way to make himself liked by everyone. And by the end of the novel, we discover that Mirabelle Dartigen – the mother, liked him enough to become his lover. 

We get a bit of a Proustian throwback thanks to the mother’s diary, in which she mainly wrote down different recipes, but also scribbled here and there plenty of “juicy” insights into her thoughts. As she passes away she leaves the diary to Framboise and a while after, Framboise starts getting harassed by her nephew and his wife, who are trying to get their hands on the diary, not only for its recipes but also as the diary belonging to Mirabelle Dartigen – the infamous woman guilty of mass murder… the plot thickens. 

However, let me give you a sense of the atmosphere 😛 The book’s main motif is food. From the characters’ names: Framboise, Cassis, Reinette, Noisette, etc to the actual food described, not to mention the title and the huge significance of the orange, everything seems to revolve around a recipe, food, flavors, smells and we’re talking French cuisine, so you can imagine the drooling that goes on as you read. 

Besides revolving around food, this novel does a great job of exploring and showing a mother-daughter relationship, along with sibling relationships. And because of the dynamics, and how everything gets twisted by a 9-year-old’s mind, it makes it hard to like or even root for any of the characters, including Framboise. At first, this made the story almost infuriating to me. But, as we step further in, we truly realise the novel is more about the mother than about the daughter, more about family and about small-town small-mindedness that eventually makes the people of Les Laveuses turn into a pitchfork-carrying, torch-throwing mob, just like the ones Gaston leads to the Beast’s castle – I guess that’s some sort of French motif 😀

Did I like it?

The novel managed to surprise me with at least two things that seemed predictable at first – we learn that something very bad (potential mass murder) happened and the mother was connected. However, the truth runs so much deeper than that and I thoroughly enjoyed the surprising turn of events. 

I’m trying my best not to give spoilers here, so I’ll just stop here and say I really liked this book, however infuriating I found it at first. If I were to rate it, I’d give it 4/5 stars, or even 4.5/5. I whole-heartedly recommend it to people who enjoy realistic fiction, even historical fiction, food fiction, etc. 

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh

The second book I read, a novella, is called “Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh. After a bit of research, it appears that this is the author’s debut and I’d say she’s off to a good start. The novella is also the first part of a series.

What’s it about?

It follows Tobias, a magnificently large man who leaves in the forest and has been there for around 400 years. He is one with the forest and people in the village tell stories of him – the giant wood dweller. So, yes, you guessed it, we’re talking fantasy here. The forest is enchanted, there are dryads, a giant oak that seems to hold not only the forest alive but also Tobias. And as Tobias is leading his regular life, caring for the dryads, protecting the forest and the villagers from forest creatures going rogue, here comes Andrew Silver, the owner of the mansion and domain that holds the forest, turning poor Toby’s life upside down. 

The two men like each other and develop an unlikely friendship. Silver gets flirty with Tobias and it gets obvious that Tobias likes him too. However, the dreaded time of year comes, when something stirs in the forest, something that Tobias needs to save the villagers from. Except now, he needs to save Silver as well. But he doesn’t. And the rest…well, enough spoilers for now.

Did I like it?

It was a nice read and I enjoyed the feel of the forest. I am not sure what lays ahead in the second part of this story of “The Greenhollow Duology” but I felt that perhaps this short novella could have been a novel. The reason for that is some of the parts seemed a bit rushed, brushed over, and more details and in-depth focus would have been welcome. For example, Tobias’ back story would have deserved a few chapters maybe. Nevertheless, I’d rate it 3/5 stars and I am curious to read the sequel.

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