Review: The Chocolate Heart, by Laura Florand

The Chocolate Heart

I discovered Laura Florand’s novels nearly a year ago now, and was instantly hooked.  How could I not be?  For one thing, they are set in Paris, a city that I love, and for another, much more important, thing, they are all about chocolate and patisserie and the making thereof.  Her characters are chocolatiers and patissiers and lovers of beautiful desserts and they think about food and cooking all the time, in a wonderfully sensual way that is described so exquisitely that I want to climb into the books and eat everything in them.

I am still sad that  La Maison des Sorcières does not exist, in fact.  I’m fairly sure it’s the café I am supposed to live in.

So when Laura Florand mentioned on Facebook that she had review copies of her newest book, The Chocolate Heart, to give away, I was in like a shot, and when I actually won one of them, I was absolutely beside myself with excitement.  And here I am, trying to review it, and it turns out that this is an incredibly difficult task for me, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and Paris is still Paris, and the food is, if anything, even more delectable than ever and then…

Well, I’ll let Florand speak for herself:

He sent her three golden orbits of a star around a dark, proud mountain, the mountain a chocolate so pure and smooth it was like glass, to slide off, and hidden in amid the golden sugar orbits of the star, at the very peak of the mountain, a tiny delicate apple covered in gold leaf.  She didn’t know what the tiny apple tasted like inside the gold, or what was in the mountain, or how easily those golden star orbits would shatter at her touch, because she sent it back.  Of course.  Her throat closing, her hand curling slow and hard against her thigh under the table, as she tried very hard not to cry out in protest, to beg for it back.

She sent it back.  SHE SENT IT BACK.  I cannot begin to describe how much this upsets me.  Here we have our hero, Luc, creating the most gorgeous desserts – all of which have a feeling of the fairy tale about them; this one the glass mountain, the next Snow White’s apple – and Summer, the heroine will not eat them.  Again, and again, and again.

It is exquisitely painful to read.

So here’s the thing.  The Chocolate Heart is, as I have learned to expect from Laura Florand, a beautifully written novel, with very real characters, full of absolutely luscious food described with loving attention to all the sense – really, Ms Florand is one of the best food writers I’ve encountered – and it presses every one of my buttons to a degree that I can hardly bear to read it.  Which is not in any way a criticism, I might add. If the novel wasn’t so well-written, if I didn’t identify so strongly with the characters, if I couldn’t very nearly taste the food on the page, it probably wouldn’t bother me.

(In fact, after writing the first draft of this review, I felt compelled to write to Ms Florand, because I felt guilty at not being able to say how much I loved her book – because it was driving me *nuts*! – and she pointed out that this whole novel is about pressing people’s buttons, and that the two main characters spend the entire novel pressing each other’s buttons.  Which is, of course, true, but if that’s something that makes you miserable in a book, you should probably avoid this one, because buttons are not merely pressed, they are pressed well and thoroughly and with great accuracy.)

And as a result, I almost don’t know how to review it.

But it does deserve to find the people who will love it, so I will do my best.

We have, in this book, two deeply damaged characters.  They are, in fact, damaged to such a degree that it’s as though they travel in reflective spheres – they seem literally unable to see each other because every time one of them reacts to the other, it gets filtered through these incredibly fixed expectations and becomes something else in the other person’s mind.  Did I mention that this drives me nuts?

Summer has one of those awful relationships with her (unspeakably wealthy) parents where they are determined to do their best for her, but have never considered what she might actually want.  Actually, it’s more than that – her parents really are awful and emotionally abusive, and characterise her as a spoiled brat because she doesn’t appreciate the things they want her to want.    And… in her childhood, desserts were used as a way to control her, which she eventually overcame by deciding just not to even want desserts.  Luc’s attempts to seduce her with dessert are therefore – and with some justice – seen as a way to control her.

Luc was brought up in extreme poverty on the streets, before being fostered and apprenticed to a baker who taught him his trade.  Summer, to him, is every beautiful, rich woman who ever walked past him and ignored him when he was begging in the Metro.  And desserts are his life’s work, so every rejection of his desserts – desserts he has made specifically for her – is a fundamental rejection of his worth as a human being.  Interestingly, even once he starts to get a handle on what’s going on and trying to have a non-combative relationship with Summer, things don’t immediately improve because he still trips over his own insecurities and conceptions of how the world works.

The Chocolate Heart is actually a very convincing portrayal of how a relationship between two such damaged people might go, with Ms Florand’s characteristic little touches of  fairy-tale magic not getting in the way of the realism.  It doesn’t *quite* fall into Big Misunderstanding territory, because while the two main characters are certainly determined to misunderstand each other, it’s very clear how they got there.  It’s not the sort of thing where a sensible conversation early on would have sorted it out, because neither of them is capable of having a sensible conversation on that level early in the book, and by the time they are, other spanners have been thrown into the works.

And perhaps that, right there, is why I find this book so hard to review.  Like the main characters, I find it very difficult to see past my own feelings and issues when reading this book.  Ms Florand did warn me it was angsty – and it certainly is – but what she couldn’t warn me was that it was such Catherine-specific angst.  I understand, absolutely, the part about not being the person your parents want you to be (though my parents, needless to say, never reached the appalling levels of behaviour shown by Summer’s father in particular), and especially the part about people having a very precise picture of you in their minds that is neither accurate nor flattering and which you can’t escape.

And as for the part about sending back the desserts, you know, that’s going to be the thing I can’t forget – and perhaps can’t forgive? – about this book.  To me, feeding someone is about showing you love them – making food just for them is welcoming them, caring for them in a very personal way.  And rejecting that – I can’t even describe how that feels.  For me, food really is love, and one of the reasons I’m so obsessed with being able to make foods for any combination of allergies or dietary restrictions is so that I can make sure my friends are loved, no matter what they can or can’t eat (because trying to feed someone something they are allergic to is definitely not love… and it has only just occurred to me that for Summer, desserts really might feel like poison.  I may have to re-think both Luc and Summer in the light of that thought.).

So yeah, you could say I enter into Luc’s feelings just a little bit.  And yes, there’s more to his need to make desserts for Summer than that – and yes, the part where she finally eats one of his desserts is – I think intentionally – the true consummation of their relationship, and a true climax and turning point in the story, but…

I don’t think I’d quite realised before this that while cooking for people and feeding people really is love, accepting this gift of cooking and nurturing, is also love.  And if both halves of the equation are not present, dessert becomes a tragedy.

Even when that dessert is beautiful beyond belief.

The Chocolate Heart can be bought from The Book Depository, where it is currently on special, along with several of Laura Florand’s other novels, so if you like your Parisian dessert-themed romance with a touch of angst, now is the time to give it a try! 

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