My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve had this book on my shelf for six or seven years, and finally read it because I saw that Joanne Harris has another novel in the Chocolat series coming out this year, and that reminded me that also want to read
Different Class, her follow-up to Gentlemen and Players. However, I am determined to read the books on my shelf this year, so I plucked down Five Quarters of the Orange. I wish I had read it all those years ago when I first bought a copy, not long after I read and enjoyed Blackberry Wine. I may have loved it then on its own merits instead of merely liking it now and wishing for different books.
This novel has all the things I love about Harris’s writing—immersion into the life of the narrator, a deep sense of place built on exquisite details, tension and urgency mixed with syrup-slow moments of reflection and memory. (And, of course, descriptions and recipes of delicious food.) But what I really wanted from the experience was all of those things plus the touches of magic in Chocolat, or the mystery-thriller edges of Gentlemen and Players. The opening of Five Quarters has too much foreshadowing, too many moments of conversational “but of course you want me to get on with it,” and “we didn’t know what the consequences of our actions would be” after the reader is told that there’s a secret tragedy coming our way, that a Bad Thing™ happened. Harris’s prose moves you along with such surety, is so compelling in its immersion, the mentions upon mentions are hamfisted and unnecessary.
But I’m stubborn, and her prose so gripping, that I didn’t give up. I read the whole thing. I enjoyed adult Framboise more than her child self, with whom we spend half the story peeling back the layers of the secret tragedy. My saving grace was the retrospective narration, the adult wisdom layered into the memory of a child’s life, Framboise’s unflinching commentary on the failures and foibles of her family, and the moments of beauty and understanding as she dredges up long-buried memories. It’s masterfully done. However, I just finished a tightly-plotted, character-driven weird Western that took me from big drama to big drama, and moving on to Harris’s more florid, literary sensibility with a series of small dramas leading to the climax of the novel was jarring and impacted my experience of this book.
The climax is exciting, though, and the denouement lovely. I’m glad I made it all the way there.