August 2012, Contemporary Romance
Kensington, $14.00, 320 pages, Amazon ASIN 0758269404
There are two books in here. The first is for those who love Paris, and Parisians, unconditionally. The second is for those who love whirlwind romances and tales with a hint of the wacky. Now, normally I wouldn’t call those two mutually exclusive, but in this case, I definitely loved the one, and hated the other.
It begins with hands. Cade Corey, offspring of an eponymous American chocolate empire, has travelled to Paris to find Sylvain Marquis, maître chocolatier and owner of said hands. Cade has dreams of convincing a Parisian chocolatier to create a new line of luxury chocolates for Corey. She loves her family’s legacy – really, she does – but la belle France haunts her. Technically, any chocolatier will do as long as they are good. But first, Sylvain is the number one chocolatier in Paris. And two, he owns those hands, which Cade has set as her laptop wallpaper.
Desktop wallpaper. Of a stranger’s, but real person’s, hands. Who she’s going to meet. Strike one.
Anyway, she visits la Maison Marquis, offers the artisan a bundle of money , and promptly gets shouted at. My problem with this scenario is that it plays into two stereotypes, both of them foolish and stupid – that Americans think money buys everything and French artisans are pompous elitists. Strike two.
Cade has rented a flat across the street from Sylvain’s laboratoire and revels in artsy-scholarliness of it all. But after bumping into Sylvain several times (who lives, like, right above his shop) and mutually infuriating each other with their relative nationalnesses, Cade decides she’s going to damn well steal his chocolate secrets from him. And she breaks into Sylvain’s chocolate shop. Strike three.
Now, I know I’m not supposed to take it seriously. There’s a fantastical, surreal element to the story that rather reminds of me Like Water for Chocolate, and I think the only time I’d appreciate that movie, if I ever watched it again, is if I was pissing, stinking high. And that’s not going to happen. And to be honest, there’s also a lot to like about The Chocolate Thief. Ms. Florand’s prose is, at times, evocative and beautiful, and it flows and melts rather like the orgasmic chocolate in Cade’s mouth. I also feel equally for Cade and Sylvain, because I’ve been the non-francophone trying desperately to fit into a country that is cordial but closed, and I’ve been the francophone proud of a country that, for all its faults, relishes life in a way that no other country does. I love France, I love Paris, and this book is a love letter to both.
But The Chocolate Thief is badly muddled by a romance that is, quite frankly, unbelievable and ridiculous. Sylvain and Cade have nothing in common except a love of chocolate and lust for sex. I do not for a moment believe they will stay married. And much of Cade’s journey to Paris is motivated by a desire for personal emancipation that reads false and forced.
It’s really too bad, because (at the risk of sounding like a snobbish Francophile) it’s rare to read romance novels or chick lit that not only demonstrate an appreciation for France, Paris, and Frenchmen, but that get the details right, from language to geography to an understanding of how the French work. And stereotypes aside, Ms. Florand gets it. The author is better than the stereotypes, and better than a slipshod story dragged out of Seine, dipped in melted Mars Bars, deep-fried, and presented as a delicacy.
-- Jean Wan
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