Why did I read it? It was available in audio, and I adored Chocolat by the same author, Joanne Harris, a dose of magical realism, romance and embracing life.
What's it about? Vianne has escaped to anonymity of the city of Paris with her two daughters, Anouk and Rosette, and is seeking a normal, ordinary life. She's taken on her mother's name Yan, she has stopped creating her own confections with the result her shop is failing, and her landlord is in pursuit of her when the glamorous, exciting Zozie de l'Alba enters their lives with the winds of change flirting around her. Annie (Anouk) instantly likes and admires Zozie for her pride in being unique, different, and as both Yan and Annie come to rely on Zosie, the wind, their pasts and (long held) secrets continue their relentless pursuit.
What did I like? First, the narration by Juliet Stevenson. It is clear she was a great actress, and when voicing the male characters, I actually thought a male actor had been employed. Ms Steveson's performance of this story was superb and I will actively seek out other books she has chosen to narrate. The story is told through three characters: Vianne, Anouk and Zozie. Ms Steveson made it easy for me to determine to whom a particular chapter related in just the first few words; her characterisation of each individual voice so skillfully personified. I just cannot praise, or thank Juliet Stevenson enough for narrating The Lollipop Shoes, in unabridged format at that.
I adored the inclusion of folk and fairy tales throughout the story. Each was a morality tale, as was the whole book (see below for more on this aspect), and each raised the suspicions of this reader. As an adult, I still have my childhood compendium of fairytales and I read them in times when I need to feel comforted, so to find an adult book along the same lines is refreshing. These folk and fairy tales are the clues to the secrets in this book, so pay attention.
The Lollipop Shoes is darker than Chocolat, more like those old-fashioned Grimm fairy tales (before sanitisation) highlighting the gruesome fate that awaits the unwary child who ignores their parent's warnings, and which have a hard lesson to impart wrapped up in a cloak of alluring magic. The magic in this story was much more overt and fairytale-like than the subtle magical realism employed in the first book. I probably enjoyed this because of my penchant for those tales I read as a child, though I can see where it might not be to everyone's liking who enjoyed the more subtle, more believable (?) magic in Chocolat.
The Lollipop Shoes is more of a mystery book, with a dire sense of danger to it, rather than the quaint tale of the battle between different outlooks, beliefs and morals of the earlier book, though these do play a significant part in the story.
The characterisation of the three narrating voices - Vianne, Anouk and Zozi - had depth, and the tension between them was palpable. Shining light on a situation/scene from the point of view of different characters enhanced the feeling of something not being right. In fact, the tension and danger was palpable because of the insights into the thought processes of three, rather than the usual one, or two characters. As the ending approached, the tension tightened and I found myself on edge, and having to listen all through the night and into morning until the climax; I could not stop listening so desperate was I to learn the fates of these three, desperate women.
The Lollipop Shoes is also a coming-of-age tale and explores themes of finding one's place in the world-at-large, bullying, the growing pains experienced by parents and children as time passes, and the tension this causes between the two. There is also a window on how a parent might balance protecting their children against preparing them for adulthood, and the unique challenges encountered with children that are outside (what society might consider) the norm.
Finally, the food; so enticing; so delicious. Joanne Harris knows how to awaken the senses with her descriptions, and I could smell, see and almost touch every culinary creation within the book. With Juliet Stevenson delivering the lines with such sumptuousness, the kind that raises real cravings within me, without resorting to that overt food porn voice employed by those Marks and Spencer's commercials that are meant to entice the whole of the UK, I am ever so grateful that I didn't have a scrap of chocolate in the house when reading this book, or unhealthy food of any type, as temptation was invoked with every word.
What didn't I like? One aspect of morality explored in the book was particularly distasteful: the ethics explored in the employment of magic. It felt like the ongoing animosity between (non-initiate, non-lineaged) Wicca and other magicians/witches. The so-called laws of magic frequently voiced by the former were applied to Vianne in this book and it truly began to grate, almost to the point of shredding my last nerve, especially when it alluded to the neopagan point of view being the "good", in opposition with the traditional outlook being the "evil", despite Vianne following the old ways in the book. Even the resolution, when it came, left a bitter taste in my mouth, and not a pleasant one like that provided by chocolate. This was more than a disappointment.
Yan (Vianne) was very whiny in this book and the repetitive nature of her complaints did begin to wear, though I know this is often how those of that state of mind behave, not realising they are sounding like a broken record. In a similar vein, I am not sure if Joanne Harris believes her readers to be a little dim, or possessing poor memories, but there was quite a bit of repetition in the book and not just because the same scenes were being voiced by different characters. There was more than one instance when I thought: "Aren't these the exact words she used before and the same story? Has my iPod backtracked without me knowing?"
There was an issue with the audio version in that the volume was a little too low and, though perfectly appropriate for this style of story, it meant I had to turn up the volume on my player and this led to some unusual background noises: static; someone receiving an email on Outlook (we all know that pinging sound, don't we?); and some other, not quite discernible, but nevertheless potentially distracting sounds.
Would I recommend it? Yes, oh yes. I shall definitely be listening again. It's a strong story that draws you in and you listen in wonder, all the while hoping that when the battle comes, your chosen heroine will be triumphant and the villain punished. Just remember, real life is more a Grimm fairytale, than Disney-like "dreams come true" tale.