I’m off tomorrow for a long weekend in Brisbane, going to the Australian Romance Readers’ Convention. It’s hard to get further away from grant applications and budgets than that and I’m pretty excited about it, actually.
Anyway, in honour of the Romance convention and my weekend away, I thought it would be appropriate to review a romance novel set in a suitably exotic location – Paris: The Chocolate Thief, by Laura Florand.
The main character in this book, though, is the chocolate, or at the very least, all the ingredients for it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has such a vivid, sensual approach to food. Most cookbooks don’t make me this hungry. Here’s a taste for you:
She went by aroma, as it proved easier than trying to read the words. Another jar rattled slightly and released a piquant scent. She touched her finger to the familiar small rounds of whole pepper. Another jar puzzled her for a moment with its licorice scent. She traced rough stars… star anise. Vanilla was easy. She picked up a bean because she could not resist it, running her finger down the glossy, wrinkled length of it, imprinting herself with the aroma. TAHITI claimed the crate of chef pouches, the brand so bold she could make it out even in the dark.
Trailing vanilla and lemon, she plunged her hand into a great burlap sack stamped with the word IRAN. Roundness slid over her hand, a curiously intense pleasure of texture. Pistachios. She close a fist around some as she pulled her hand out and ate them, capturing the unroasted flavour inside her the way she had taken the lemon and the vanilla onto her skin.
This is Cade Corey, chocolate bar heiress, breaking into the laboratory of master chocolatier, Sylvain Marquis. Her ostensible intention – what she tells herself – is that she is there to get her revenge and to steal his recipes. Her real intention, though, is plain to be seen in the pages and pages just like the two paragraphs I’ve quoted. Cade may be the face of cheap American chocolate, but she loves chocolate and ingredients and the whole process of chocolate making with an intensity that is palpable and fuels this book.
Let me start at the beginning.
The premise is this: Cade Corey goes to Paris to try to convince the world’s best chocolatier to work with Corey Chocolates to produce a gourmet version of their chocolate bar – something a bit more special than their basic, 33 cent candy bar, but still affordable to the general public.
Sylvain, the chocolatier in question, is beyond appalled at the idea of his name being associated with cheap chocolates and rejects the idea with immense disdain. It should be over at that point, but Cade has rented an apartment right next to his shop, and they keep running into each other and somehow can’t resist getting on each other’s nerves… a situation which culminates in Cade’s decision to steal a key and break into his workshop. Three times.
Food bloggers get involved.
And on it goes.
There are many, many things to like about this book. Firstly, the Parisian setting is just wonderful. It manages to make me hungry for Paris both by reminding me of all the gorgeousness of Paris but also while being unafraid to mention the less appealing aspects (cigarettes… everywhere. Among other things). Also, I absolutely *felt* for Cade, who has studied French for years, attempting to speak French to people and constantly being answered in English, even though her French is better than their English. Yep, I remember that, and it’s infuriating. The author, it turns out, married a Frenchman and lives in Paris, so the loving accuracy of the setting is explained.
There is the chocolate. Oh, the chocolate. Florand has clearly spend some serious time in a chocolaterie, and she describes all the stages of chocolate production with the same loving sensuality that she uses to describe the ingredients. This is a romance novel, and it has a handful of sex scenes – quite hot ones, at that – but the descriptions of tempering chocolate are even hotter. (Incidentally, if you don’t like sex scenes, but like the sound of the rest of it, I implore you, don’t avoid the book on that account – you can skip those pages and still love the rest.)
Then there are the characters. When I started reading this book the first time, I winced a bit at both Cade and Sylvain, who seemed to be playing strongly to the American and French stereotypes. Cade is enthusiastic and direct and tactless and resilient and convinced that money can buy anything, and Sylvain is arrogant and sexy and slightly chauvinistic and more than slightly snobbish. But… that’s not all there is to them.
Sylvain is absolutely and utterly arrogant about his ability with chocolate – he really is the best at what he does and sees no need whatsoever to be modest about this. But he isn’t confident in all things, though he puts a good face on it (helped by the fact that Cade is really not good at reading him – I think the author does rather a nice job with the cross-cultural bafflement here; because Sylvain fits some of the French stereotype mold, Cade thinks he fits all of it and responds accordingly.). He really doesn’t quite get women – they are unpredictable and they don’t make sense, and while he has learned to seduce women with chocolate, one gets the sense that he really has no clue how to have a proper relationship.
And his snobbery about chocolate is genuine and intrinsic – there is a point when Cade tries to make him a S’more, and he is *utterly* appalled by the very idea, and trying to find something non-insulting to say about it, or to figure out if he can distract her so that he doesn’t have to do this to his palate.
Cade, on the other hand, for all her brashness and pride in her family’s heritage of chocolate for the masses, really, really loves good chocolate. She wants to stay in Paris, to learn everything she can about chocolate making, and getting Sylvain into the family brand is really an excuse for this. And she’s not stupid – I like it that she has a chemistry degree and knows a lot about how chocolate is made, and her family owns plantations around the world, tries to improve conditions of cacao workers, and does research into diseases of the cacao plants. (Sylvain can’t understand how she can possibly know all this, and how her family can possibly produce such good cacao beans and yet make such appalling chocolate)
And I do love Cade’s crusade to bring good chocolate to the masses (At one point Sylvain calls her a ‘chocolate anarchist’ in tones of horror, and she embraces this with enthusiasm).
The relationship between these two characters is gorgeous – they are both adults with adult responsibilities that have to be considered within their relationship, whatever it may turn out to be, and they are both a lot more insecure than they look. There are a hell of a lot of misunderstandings early on – which seem to be largely cultural – but they are both pretty good about going back and trying to figure out what that was all about and fixing it like sensible adults. Or accidentally making it worse, but the intent to be sensible adults is there, at least. You get the impression that this relationship really might work, despite the circumstances, which seem increasingly impossible as the book progresses.
Oh, and I just have to mention in passing Cade’s grandfather Corey, who is one of the best minor characters I’ve seen in a novel like this. He rings Cade regularly while she is in Paris and is highly enthusiastic about breaking into chocolate workshops – he wants to come to Paris and help her break into things, and then maybe move on to a tour of Switzerland. Also, he still remembers the Cory chocolates that were given out by the troops at the end of World War II (not very tasty, but highly nutritious), and is experimenting with putting spinach and kale into chocolate…
I don’t know how to finish this review except to say that when I read The Chocolate Thief, I find myself constantly smiling with delight – it really is a gorgeous, charming, fun book, even if it does make me want to eat all the chocolate in the world right now. Though it must be said, this book is basically catnip for a Catherine like me – it’s full of food and cooking, and especially chocolate, it’s set in Paris, it’s clever, it’s funny, and it is, in the end, a very sweet story. It makes me happy. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves Paris, chocolate, or romance novels. And if you love all three, this book is going to make you very happy.
(And I’m going to stop now, before this whole post devolves into me jumping up and down going “Read it! Read it! Read it!”)
See you next week!