Okay, so we have in this series:
The Chocolate Thief – light, fun, beautifully written, with a poor-little-rich girl protagonist who is neither clichéd nor annoying, but instead a character you can really root for. Plus an arrogant chocolatier, her perfect foil, who is not really all that arrogant – well, he is, but he is also a wonderfully believable and sympathetic protagonist.
The Chocolate Kiss – not quite as light, because Magalie is vulnerable in a way that is actually kind of heartbreaking. Where Thief is basically a comedy, this one is more serious and genuinely touching – though certainly not without humor. I honestly don’t know which book of this series is my favorite, but Magalie is my favorite of the female protagonists.
The Chocolate Rose – am I slow or what? Because I didn’t catch that this story was going to draw on the Beauty-and-the-Beast fairy tale until about the third time Gabriel Delange thinks of himself as a “beast.” After that the shoe finally dropped: A beast, a beautiful girl, her father who steals the rose from the beast, hello. I don’t want to make too much of this, because the fairy tale just echoes gently through The Chocolate Rose, so don’t pick this story up thinking it’s actually a retelling. It’s not. But the fairy tale does add an extra layer – I’m trying not to say it’s the icing on the cake, but I can’t help it; all the beautiful desserts in the story are getting to me.
Let me just add that The Chocolate Rose also has one of my favorite lines ever, because after Jolie has just peeled and sectioned a zillion grapefruit, we get this: “She was not without kitchen skills, not by any means. But the speed, the intensity, the amount of competing motion she had to dodge, and the sheer repetition of task surpassed anything she had ever done before. Jo hated grapefruit. She hadn’t known that before, but not she hated it with a profound and utter passion. Maybe she should give up cookbook writing, become a microbiologist, and create a fungus that would wipe grapefruit trees of the planet.”
People, I laughed out loud. I honestly did.
I also really enjoyed Jolie – because she’s a writer, see, and also because I personally own like a hundred cookbooks and usually read them straight through, like novels, so I can easily imagine the effort that goes into writing a cookbook with a top chef. I enjoyed watching Gabriel struggle with the concept of “recipes a talented amateur could pull off”. I also definitely appreciated how a chef’s crazy hours would be absolutely perfect for a writer who needs a lot of time to herself. As always with Florand, I loved both Jo and Gabriel.
So each of these three books is a little different from the others, and this is true even though you can very definitely tell they’re all by the same author. They all have beautiful characterization and lovely writing and great description and nice, tight plotting, but to me they also seem to be gaining depth as you move through the series, especially if you add Turning Up The Heat, which incidentally is a perfect little gem of a novella.
So, how about Florand’s most recent story, The Chocolate Touch?
I just finished it. And, seriously, it blew me away. If Magalie is my favorite of Florand’s female protagonists, Dom is definitely my favorite of her male protagonists. And I say that as a reader who really enjoys all of Florand’s protagonists in all her books. I think I love best the most damaged protagonists? And Dom definitely carries the most extreme baggage. He carries it very, very well. He knew the value of strength, that was one thing he knew very well. It was to make himself unassailable. And now he would make her unassailable, too. At last somebody needed his strength.
Wow. I fell so hard for Dom, I can’t even tell you.
Anyway, I bookmarked dozens of pages of The Chocolate Touch because I also thought it would be a good book to take apart a little, if you’re in an analytical mood.
Here’s the beginning:
Dom straightened from the enormous block of chocolate he was creating, gave his maitresse de salle, Guillemette, a disgruntled look for having realized he would want to know that, and slipped around to the spot in the glass walls where he could get the best view of the salle below.
What I like about this beginning is the disgruntled look for having realized he would want to know that. That’s a really nice phrase. Just right there, it establishes so much about Dom’s character, plus it instantly sketches the minor secondary character, Guillemette.
Now, Dom. He is pretty fabulous. He tries so hard. His background is so awful, and he is so determined to overcome it. I love, love, love his relationship with his employees. You know, they call him “Dom” and address him as “tu”? His interactions with his employees not only drive the plot but serve perfectly to develop Dom’s character: Someone catcalled. Amand gave a long wolf-whistle. “Oh, shut the hell up,” Dom said. He couldn’t entirely suppress a grin, even though he was flushing.
One disappointment for me in this story – I found Dom’s employees so engaging, and their relationship with Dom so charming, that I would have really enjoyed seeing them actually get the news about Jaime asking Dom to marry her. They must have gone nuts and I didn’t get to watch. Well, the author can’t put in everything, I know. But if I wrote fan fiction, I would totally write that scene. And I want to point out that this means that even very minor secondary characters like Guillemette and Célie and Amand felt like real people to me even though we barely glimpse them on stage, which is quite an accomplishment.
Now, Jaime. Jaime is also a great protagonist, and I say this even though I have a low low low tolerance for the sort of person who devotes herself to Saving The World. That’s because it’s pretty plain that actually that sort of thing is often all about First World posturing: Look at me, I’m a Good Person, I Care, never mind that my Cause is poorly thought out and not actually helping anybody – maybe even hurting people. Yeah, excuse me while I roll my eyes, but I’m the sort of person who cares strictly about results and not about how bright and shiny anybody’s intentions might be.
But! In this book, Florand has given Jaime a backstory that involves truly helping real people deal with real abusive practices. She shows the problem, and (extremely important for me) she also shows the results that Jaime was achieving. And Florand does this without preaching and without spending a lot of time developing the issue. And then Jaime’s backstory makes her perfectly suited for Dom. Really nice, and we’re back to a study of characterization and the importance of backstory for motivation.
You can also reach for The Chocolate Touch to look at description and detail and drawing the scene. Like Dom’s rosebud wall, and La Victoire. And like the Eiffel Tower: “He liked the impossible, fantastical strength of [the Eiffel Tower], the way the metal seemed so massive up close. He liked the fact that it had risen above all the complaints and criticism that surrounded its birth and stamped its power not only over the city but the world. He pulled out the little moleskin journal he always carried with him and stood for a long time sketching the curves and angles of the bolts and metal plates, thinking of designs for the surfaces of his chocolates.”
And I want to point out how description also deepens characterization, because nothing is described in isolation – everything is described in terms of the protagonist’s reaction to it – this Eiffel Tower scene is a perfect example. It’s so important to embed your character in the scene that way. Problems with setting the scene have been so noticeable in the workshop entries I’ve seen at conventions.
Florand also has some stylistic tricks that are worth noticing. Like her use of italics to emphasize a particular phrase when we’re seeing a character’s thoughts. I read something somewhere (sorry, no idea where) where an author said something like: emphasis is so personal to the reader, he had all but quit using italics. Well, Florand wouldn’t agree, and I’m glad, because I get a real kick out of her use of italics. Like here:
“How are you?” Dom asked the brunette crisply, trying to make himself seem unavailable without making anyone watching think he was a rude, crude, and socially unacceptable human being who had sex with women whose names he couldn’t remember later and then treated them badly. Everything else might be true, but he did not treat them badly. . . . brushing her off wasn’t going to be that easy to do. Certainly not without giving the definite impression to people who happened to watching that he used women and was heartless to them afterward.
We see both the standard use of italics for emphasis here (not) and the really clever use of italics to add humor to Dom’s self-derisive commentary on the situation. It seems to me Florand mostly uses this technique with her male leads, and I think this might be because they are all extremely arrogant and this self-derisive tone is a way of showing their vulnerability. (I could be totally wrong. It’s not like I’m taking notes every minute, right? I get lost in the story, too, you know. But it does seem to me this is mostly something Florand uses for her male protagonists.) Oh, and let me draw your attention to that crisply and just reiterate that adverbs are not bad, not even in dialogue tags, if you use them well. I know I have said that before.
This scene also shows a really close third-person voice, which is worth noticing because Florand uses this kind of voice to great effect and it is by no means the only choice when using third person. If you use phrases like “It would be difficult, he thought, to get rid of this brunette without appearing rude,” then you are using a much more distant third-person voice. In other words, you can either report on your character’s thoughts and feelings: he thought, he felt, he imagined. Or you can bring the reader directly into your character’s head, in which case you would not use that kind of report, right? You will find that a skilled author moves back and forth in distance as she moves through the narrative, because a really close third-person stance is too exhausting for the reader to keep up for a whole book. Florand uses a lot of close third-person, but even she doesn’t stick to it all the time. I don’t expect she analyzes this (I don’t imagine anybody actually writes so analytically.) It’s something you do by feel. But if you wanted to really study close third person and see how it’s done, these books would be excellent.
So, characterization, scene, style. Dialogue, too. My favorite scene in the whole book may be the one where Dom meets Jaime’s family. I love Dom’s aggression, wow. And I love how he forces himself to acknowledge Sylvain’s kindness to Jaime before he met her, and honestly I just love the way the whole family interacts. Writing a scene with that many characters in it is not easy – in this one, we have Dom, Jaime, Sylvain, Cade, James, and Mack, and they all have to be there through essentially the whole scene. If you have anybody fall silent for three or four paragraphs, the reader can lose track of him and that’s a problem. This is a nice crowd scene, if you would like to take it apart and see how it works. My favorite line in it may be: “I’m begging you, James, stop with the spinach.”
Is this book totally perfect? Well, just about, yes. On the other hand, I’m not going to buy a copy for my mother. She wouldn’t be able to tolerate the occasional English cusswords – I am going to have to look up putain some time – and she, like me, really prefers a discreet veil to be drawn across the bedroom door. For anybody where those aspects aren’t dealbreakers, though – yes, it comes pretty close to perfect.
Laura Florand is definitely on my autobuy list after this year – not just for the Chocolate romances, but for whatever she writes. I’m only sorry I’ve now run out of her entire list, but at least it’s not too long a wait till her next title comes out — she has a novella, “Snow-Kissed” due out in September, and two more Chocolate titles are scheduled for this coming November and January release dates.