Fiction – paperback; Thunder Mouth’s Press; 322 pages; 2005. Translated from the Dutch by Sherry Marx.
Joop Daalder, the youngest of three children, grows up in a large house in Holland under two emotionally distant parents who show him little love or affection. He is clumsy, has no friends and is constantly compared to his two sisters who share a talent for classical music.
Resolved to leading a lonely mediocre life, Joop is lifted out of his humdrum existence by a chance discovery: a passion for good food and, in particular, chocolate. Unfortunately no one understands this passion and he must rise above the ridicule cast upon him by family and friends.
While on a university excursion to France, Joop meets a chocolateer, Jerome Sorel, who offers him the chance of a lifetime. Against his parent’s wishes, Joop drops out of his art history course to accept Sorel’s offer of an apprenticeship. With just the clothes on his back and a small amount of cash for company, he hitchhikes across Holland to the little French town of Avallon and Monsieur Sorel’s old-fashioned chocolate shop.
Good food, good company and a good career ahead of him, for the first time in his life Joop feels happy and at one with himself.
Later, when he falls in love with Emma, a Dutch nanny who lives in the same village, life couldn’t get any more sweeter… or could it?
Daalder’s Chocolates is a simple tale that charts one man’s life in pursuit of a dream: becoming a chocolateer and running his own shop. Reminiscent of a fairytale, it can be no coincidence that Joop often compares himself with an ugly duckling that has turned into a beautiful swan.
The circular narrative begins where it ends, with Joop as an old man on the brink of closing down his chocolate shop in Toronto because a super-deli has moved in next door. Unhappy, lonely and defeated, it’s almost like meeting the boyhood Joop all over again.
Set in Holland, France and Canada, the book is broad in scope, if occasionally lacking in detail. Sometimes the story jumps ahead without filling in the gaps, as it were, but whether this is poor writing or poor translation, it is difficult to tell. I suspect it may be the former because the chapters are often surprisingly (and sometimes annoyingly) short.
The characterisation, however, is strong and one can’t help but fall in love with Joop’s wife, Emma, even if you sometimes want to shake her by the shoulders and tell her to get a life. But it is Joop, the complicated, flawed and incredibly driven main character, that makes this book what it is.
I initially felt sorry for Joop, but then I grew to like and admire him, respecting his one-eyed pursuit of a personal dream. But later, I despised him, for ignoring the things that should have been important to him, such as his wife and child. But then was it any wonder Joop could not express his love for them when he had grown up in such an emotionally cold environment himself. In the end, I felt sorry for Joop, my feelings in many ways mirroring the circular narrative.
Ultimately, Daalder’s Chocolates is a heart-warming — and sometimes heart-wrenching — tale about finding your place in the world. It’s by no means a perfect book and in good need of some ‘fleshing’ out, but it’s an enjoyable one nonetheless. A word of warning though: the descriptions of food will make you feel a little on the hungry side, so if you’re reading this in bed, take some chocolate with you!