Battle of good and evil with a caramel center

CHOCOLAT By Joanne Harris Viking 242 pp., $22.95

Hey guys: On Feb. 14, resist Lady Godiva. Forgo the Whitman's Sampler. Try something sweet of a decidedly different nature: a magical new book from Joanne Harris called "Chocolat."

This high-calorie fantasy is a strange blend of romance and feminism. Your sweetheart will think you're gallant and politically correct all at the same time. In this tasty brew of a book, Harris manages to mix up all kinds of incongruous ingredients. Imagine Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" dipped in dark chocolate.

Little Lansquenet in the south of France is a town straight out of the 19th century, except for a dollop of technology that indicates the modern world it resists. The story opens when Vianne Rocher drifts in like a blend of Martha Stewart and Mary Poppins to sell her sumptuous chocolates. "It's none of my business," she admits, "but I felt at that moment that if ever a place were in need of a little magic," it was this town.

Determined to settle down, Vianne and her impish six-year-old daughter open "La Cleste Praline" right across from the cathedral. Before long, Vianne begins working her confectionary wizardry on these repressed, gossipy people, giving them a taste of pleasure and friendship they've never known.

To the town priest, Cur Reynaud, her shop is an attack on right living and thinking. As he thinks of "the pralines, Venus' nipples, truffles, mendiants, candied fruits, hazelnut clusters, chocolate seashells, candied rose petals and sugared violets," he can barely contain his rage. Or is that hunger?

Preaching a doctrine of cruel self-denial and deadly xenophobia, Reynaud denounces La Cleste Praline in his sermons every week, but few can resist the shop's delicacies.

Vianne's willingness to love without judgment and her lack of interest in traditional religion draw the town's children and misfits to her shop, even as she repels their strict priest. (At one point, he even objects to the smile on a statue of St. Francis!) When Vianne befriends a troupe of gypsies and begins preparations for a "Grand Festival du Chocolat" on Easter, Reynaud vows to burn away her influence at any price.

Fortunately, he's opposed in this wicked plan by the town's most elderly member, a wealthy iconoclastic woman determined to stay in control of her own life and meet death on her own terms. She holds dark secrets from the priest's past that may keep him in check, but other offended conservatives in town prove more difficult to control.

Of course, in every box of chocolates, there are a few coconuts to avoid. Vianne's dalliance with the occult leaves a sour aftertaste in some sections.

Nevertheless, surrounded by boxes of leftover Christmas candy, I found myself salivating all through this delicious piece. Harris's creamy style is garnished with wit and pathos, and her simple, highly symbolic plot is the perfect light fare for a romantic winter night.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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