Sunday, August 24, 2008

Five Quarters of the Orange; Joanne Harris

I’ve had this book for years, I probably bought it new, but it sat and sat. Until one day I finally pulled it down and read the first few pages and *wham!* I was hooked. Just like that. Often a book will have to wait patiently, very patiently, after it comes to live on my shelves until I pull it out to read it. As the song says, I have to be in the mood again. Otherwise, either I won’t finish it or it’ll be a wallbanger or I’ll pick it apart. Or I’ll trade it or give it as a gift without actually reading it. But- if I’m in the mood? At least it’ll have a fair shake, so to speak.

Anyhow, Ms. Harris has written quite a few other books, Chocolat perhaps most notably. While reading Five Quarters I was reminded somehow of Like Water for Chocolate, written by Laura Esquivel. In different ways each author emphasizes centrality of food and family, the lasting effects one event can have. Both novels are powerful. Ms. Harris’ character does not triumph until much later in her life, but I ought to save that for later, I suppose.

Five Quarters is narrated by a sixty something year old woman named Boise, Framboise properly. That was one of Ms. Harris’ unique touches, most of the narrator’s family members are named (in French) after foods. The one sibling who isn’t? Comes to a tragic end. I am getting ahead of myself though. The narrative moves back and forth between Boise’s present and one year, during World War II, that is the pivot of all their lives. Framboise, her sister and their brother live with their widowed mother on a little farm in rural France. Money is tight; they do whatever they can to make ends meet. Right from the start their mother is harsh, cold, rarely allowing finer feelings to surface. Then again, if I had no money, three kids and a farm to run I don’t know that I’d be able to show softer feelings either, TBH. Still, their mother is hard on them and appears to have more than a small touch of what is now called obsessive compulsive disorder.

In the present day Framboise has returned under cover to the farm, using her married surname only. She is a secretive woman. Like her mother, she shows few of her feelings: coldness, irritation, anger. You realize that she would be a difficult woman to live with, a difficult woman to love. Prickly and defensive, Boise is a woman who is more likely to wound you first to save herself from you wounding her. The best defense is a good offense. The question is: what happened to make her this way? What happened to the little family that Framboise has snuck back to the farm incognito decades later? Why after all of these years is she still hiding?

I talked out loud to myself while I read this- not a common occurrence for me. “O.M.G.” “You’re kidding!” “Wow. That explains a lot!” And, last but not least, “Boy, I didn’t see that one coming!” Because Boise was a kid during the flashbacks, you only have as much information as a kid could expect to have or reasonably expect a kid to figure out. And Boise, while smart and tough and resourceful, is still only a kid.

Five Quarters of the Orange is a wrenching, powerful read. Ultimately, it’s about personal growth and love and making peace with the past. A wonderful, wonderful book. Keeper.

Image found on Harper Collins

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