Desert Isle Keeper
Five Quarters of the Orange
When Mirabelle Dartigen dies, she leaves her land to her son, and her older daughter gets a very valuable wine collection. Her younger daughter, Framboise, inherits a scrapbook – a stitched-together collection of recipes and scribbled reminiscences.
None of the children see anything odd about this. Framboise, they all knew, was the favorite.
This is the opening of Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange. I was hooked at once, and the rest of the story continued to engross me. It’s a deliciously atmospheric read that peels back the layers of a complicated, often hostile relationship between a mother and daughter – and gradually exposes deadly secrets at its core.
Framboise and her siblings, all of them named after fruits, grow up in occupied France, where their widowed mother supports them through the farm she tends devotedly. Mirabelle is far warmer towards her fruit trees than her children, especially Framboise, who is too much like her: ugly, stoic, prickly and secretive. But the children are used to their mother’s ways. And although German soldiers are stationed in their village and food is sometimes short as a result, life goes on.
Until one of the soldiers gives them an orange.
The soldier, Tomas Leibniz, befriends the children and Framboise grows deeply fond of him. He gives them other little gifts too, especially if they tell him any rumors they might have picked up about the other villagers – say, if someone is hiding a radio. He’s always kind to the children, but they soon realize they’re walking a dangerous line. As is their mother. She needs morphine pills for her terrible headaches – during which she can’t always remember what she does – and Tomas Leibniz may be her only source.
Framboise knows the pills mean days of unconsciousness during which the children can run wild, except her mother won’t take the pills unless it’s absolutely necessary. But the headaches are always preceded by the phantom scent of oranges. So with the singlemindedness of a child—and with an orange cut clandestinely into five pieces—Framboise sets tragedy into motion.
And the repercussions of that continue to play themselves out in the present. Now widowed, still hiding her past, Framboise returns to the village of her childhood and opens a small, unpretentious eatery. Her nephew, on the other hand, owns a fancy restaurant, but when a magazine compares the two, the haute-cuisine is found wanting. Her nephew decides her recipes – or better yet, Mirabelle’s scrapbook – will spice up his business, and when Framboise reacts about as well as her mother would have done to his offer for the book, he tries to ruin her. Framboise’s struggles in the here-and-now are interwoven with her memories of the past, until the two finally come together.
Framboise, Mirabelle and Tomas Leibniz form an unusual triangle, and all three are very well characterized. I especially loved the scrapbook with its wealth of recipes and secrets, some in scraps of poetry, some in a made-up language. The only thing that didn’t ring true to me are the names Framboise gives her daughters. If you didn’t want to remind anyone of the woman who was so fruit-obsessed she named her children Blackcurrant, Greengage and Raspberry, would you call your daughters Hazelnut and Pistachio?
Actually, would you name your kids after nuts under any circumstances? No wonder her family is still messed up.
But on the whole, Five Quarters of the Orange is a lovely, unforgettable book. And I’m enough of a romantic to be warmed by the ending—something that didn’t quite work for me in Chocolat. Here, it does. I’ll let a quote speak for itself:
“No, this is something different again; a feeling of peace…It’s a feeling that tells me any woman can be beautiful in the eyes of a man who loves her.”
Open the book, breathe in the scents of aromatic oils and fresh-baked bread, and lose yourself in a literary feast. You’ll want seconds.