Miss Bates’s favourite chocolate is dark and encrusted with sea salt and caramel; she waits for it to go on sale (it’s a bit pricey for the spinster budget) at the local drug mart and nabs as many of its knobby bars as she can. It’s not nearly as good as some of the “chocolat artisanal” available in her city, but it isn’t candy-bar dross either. It is, she admits sheepishly, a “designer” knock-off. This is where Florand’s contemporary romance, The Chocolate Touch, stands in the romance spectrum. It’s not the best romance you’ll read this summer, nor the worst. It has stock-in-trade characters, especially the tedious poor-self-esteem-themed hero and heroine, a weak to non-existent conflict, copious amorous scenes to make up for the lack of conflict, and angsty internal monologues also to make up for the lack of conflict. On the other hand, the writing is solid and it’s set in Paris. It’s set in Paris! The author obviously can parlez-vous because the French phrases peppered throughout are kind of cool. Florand captures the spirit and charm of the city. Paris is an expensive city, much like hand-made luxury chocolate, and Florand’s novel serves an armchair traveler like Miss Bates quite well, maybe more than her romance did.
Florand’s plot is at best a Hershey bar, functional, but it’ll do in a pinch. The heroine, Jamie, or Jaime (a clever play on the words “I love” in French, “j’aime”) recovering from physical trauma suffered when she was involved in improving working conditions in the Côte D’Ivoire’s cacao farms, is in Paris healing in the bosom of her family. Every day, she goes to Dom’s (short for Dominique, but the diminutive is not accidental) exclusive chocolate shop to drink chocolat chaud and eat his original confections. He watches and yearns for her from his upper story laboratoire. One day, after she leaves the shop, he sees her in the middle of a Parisian street protest and rescues her from some thugs. Thus, their acquaintance is established and an affaire de coeur and most definitely du corps near-instantly follows.
And that’s pretty much it, folks. Big, bruiser, bad-boy Dom has lingering emotional fallout from an abusive father; he has anger management issues and is terrified of abandonment. He’s scared that he’ll hurt Jamie because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Jamie, in turn, feels weak and vulnerable and useless after her attack. As she tells us incessantly, she’d saved the world, saved lives (which lacked a certain humility, Miss Bates thought) … and now, she can barely manage to help herself. Being with Dom and eating his chocolate heals her; as she tells him, she’s “using” him like the sun, soaking him up, taking him in, to stand on her own two feet again. Of course, the stronger she becomes, the more frightened Dom is that she’ll leave him, even while he feels less and less worthy of her, even while she feels small and unattractive and less worthy of him. Therein lies the problem with this novel: the constant doubts and self-esteem issues of the hero and heroine, about how unlovable they are, how unworthy of the other. They are not unsympathetic and they are not unlikeable, but they are repetitive and their internal monologues are circuitous. Maybe their problems could have been less monotonous with some conflict or tension to bolster them? What little conflict there is involves Dom and Jamie withholding vital personal information: Dom’s awful childhood and Jamie’s family, a conglomerate American chocolate maker, take many many pages to emerge. In the meantime, they go to dinners (which sound delicious), eat chocolate (equally delectable), enjoy amorous relations, bicker a tad with her family and rival chocolatiers, and walk the wondrous streets of Paris. Paris and the food/chocolate are quite enjoyable to read about and the writing, after an initial blip, is smooth and self-assured.
Though Miss Bates has not read the first two novels in the series, The Chocolate Thief and The Chocolate Kiss, it’s easy to discern what Ms Florand owes Joanne Harris’s Chocolat. When Miss Bates started The Chocolate Touch, she noticed that Florand’s writing was reminiscent of Harris’s “magical realism,” a narrative style that tries to achieve timelessness by recounting realistic events with a fairy-tale-like tone, a stylistic device that Miss Bates dislikes. (Sorry for Miss Bates’s convoluted definition; she’d hoped to be succinct.) Lisa Kleypas attempts the same in the Friday Harbor series, with similar less-than-stellar results (and why Miss Bates gave up on that series after Rainshadow Road. Please, Lisa, can you write a historical romance!?). Certainly this is the tone that Florand established in the first few chapters of The Chocolate Touch. Some readers may enjoy this style, but Miss Bates stands with the critic James Wood when he deems it “hysterical realism.” The effort to marry realism to lyricism is difficult (Latin American literature uses it fairly successfully; Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is a wonderful novel and a romance to boot!). In a romance novel, Miss Bates finds the style precious and distancing. What salvages The Chocolate Touch is that Florand abandons this stylistic endeavor and adopts a straight-recounting narrative style that suits much better. As a result, the dialogue improves, though this could have been a more successful novel without the angsty internal breast-beating … maybe a nice motorcycle chase through Parisian streets à la Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant in Charade?
Miss Bates foresees The Chocolate Touch being as popular as The Thief and The Kiss; for her, the lovely descriptions of Paree and divine-sounding chocolates, and the sensuality of both were swallowed by the self-flagellating hero and heroine and lack of narrative spark. This romance novel did not provide her with more than “tolerable comfort.” Mansfield Park
Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Touch will be available as of tomorrow, Tuesday, July 30th, in the usual places and formats. Miss Bates, however, espied a couple of copies on the shelf of a chain bookstore in her native city, so maybe you can get a paper copy before then?
She received an ARE of this romance novel courtesy of Kensington Books, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.