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Five Quarters of the Orange    by Joanne Harris order for
Five Quarters of the Orange
by Joanne Harris
Order:  USA  Can
Perennial, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine has once more set a novel in an obscure village in France, this time Les Laveuses on the Loire. The protagonist is a strong and prickly sixty-four year-old lady who has returned to her childhood home under an assumed identity. Framboise's secret is that she is the daughter of the infamous Mirabelle Dartigan, whose memory is still reviled for the wartime killing of a German soldier, which resulted in the execution of ten villagers.

Boise's soldier father died early in the war, and her stern and seemingly indifferent mother Mirabelle ran the farm alone, despite an illness that gave her spells of terrible headaches. She made a living by selling baked goods like brioches and kouign amann, fruit jams and liqueurs, in Les Laveuses and in nearby Angers. When Boise returned in mid-life, she refurbished the old farm and used recipes from the album she inherited from her mother to open a restaurant, CrNaNpe Framboise.

In the present day, Framboise's weak nephew Yannick and his wife apply harrassment and blackmail to force her to give up her mother's story. In parallel, Boise takes us back to her childhood as a rebellious nine year old during the Occupation. Framboise, her brother Cassis and sister Reinette ran wild when their mother suffered from crippling headaches, whose onset was often accompanied by the scent of oranges. Mirabelle dosed herself with morphine for the pain, and traded for the pills to which she was addicted.

The three children became involved with an engaging German soldier, Tomas Leibniz, who embroiled them in black market activities and minor blackmail - 'someone to impress, a fellow conspirator with the energy of youth and the polish of experience'. He rewarded them with luxuries like chocolate, cigarettes and magazines, and for Boise a fishing rod, to fuel her obsession with catching Old Mother, the giant and perilous pike whose capture is said to grant a magical wish. On the sidelines was Boise's stuttering friend Paul, from whom she hid the fifth quarter of an orange one day.

To escape her mother's supervision and meet Tomas, Framboise hoarded rare orange peels, which she stuffed inside Mirabelle's pillow to make her inattentive. The old lady leads readers through the sequence of events that conspired to create the situation that led to the soldier's death. Reading the album, Boise begins to finally understand what her mother went through and to forgive both Mirabelle and herself. At the same time she finds an unexpected ally in dealing with her relatives' harrassment, and discovers that 'It's never too late to come home'.

Five Quarters of the Orange is a little darker and more bitter than the author's previous novels, but with her usual ingredients of magic and mystery, nourishment for the body and spirit, and hope in its ending.

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