Christmas Chocolat by Kate Defrise
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is like a luscious, multi-layered dessert with rich buttercream filling and Belgian chocolate ganache. A complex, delicious story about a Belgian family, three sisters and one brother, who’ve been summoned — not asked — by their father to return to their family home in Philadelphia to celebrate Christmas this year, something they haven’t done since they were children.
Philippe Arnaud, the very elegant but emotionally stunted patriarch of the family, devastated by the loss of his wife, Camille, many years ago, commands rather than communicates with his fabulously artistic children, none of whom feels they can meet his lofty expectations.
Jacqueline Arnaud, the oldest sister, is an opera singer and the only one who still lives in Belgium with her husband, Laurent. She has beauty, a golden voice, a seemingly charmed life, but never children, having suffered through devastating miscarriages. She loves her European life and career and has always celebrated Christmas in Belgium with her maternal grandmother and other Belgian relatives and friends. But more than anything, she doesn’t want to return to the States to see her family without a baby in her arms.
Next is Magali or, as most people call her, Gali Arnaud. She’s married to a lawyer, Leo, and lives in Philadelphia. She is the accidental author of a series of popular cookbooks for beginners, even though she has always secretly planned to write the great American novel. She and Leo have two young daughters and Gali seems to live the life most of us could relate to, a harried mother cleaning up spilled Rice Krispies, bemoaning her extra weight, trying to manage a household and a career and always feeling like she doesn’t quite measure up to her older sister or her father’s expectations. She is passionate about cooking and baking, which she does to excess whenever she is stressed (along with throwing back a glass of wine or three). There are several recipes included in the book that sound divine, although I have not had time to try them yet. Gali laments that she is not the star, not the baby and not the boy, just the middle child, and I can certainly relate!
Collette is the baby sister and she has the loftiest education, with degrees in both English lit and French, but has a rather dead end adjunct professor job at a university in San Diego and a deadbeat boyfriend who keeps leaving her, but never stays gone — though he’s left her at the alter once already! Collette knows her father wanted her to be a writer, but her real passion is fabric and fashion, and she combines her love of language and sewing by creating unique clothing with embroidered quotes. She finds herself in a fragile new relationship with the gloriously handsome Italian Dante, whose accent is to die for, but whose story seemed a little difficult to accept. But what do I know about cat burglers?
Then there is the elusive brother, Art, whom we hear about but don’t meet right away. He is a photojournalist and has been traveling — or running away from something — a great deal of his life. He stays in touch with Gali or Collette the most, never having been close to his father or Jacqueline. In fact, when he does arrive in town in time to spend the holidays, Gali and Leo offer him a room at their house as his temporary base.
The Christmas Day breakfast at the family home where long-held secrets are revealed, though shocking for the siblings to hear, is only a small part of this book. The real story is about the rich fabric of which most families are comprised, with all the interwoven relationships and events, some wonderful, some heartbreaking, but all that form the basis of our lives.
The main and supporting characters are all beautifully developed and have such rich back stories that I felt as though I could picture most of them in my head, which is exactly what I feel a good book should do. (And then when the movie comes out I am invariably disappointed if the actors are not whom I would have chosen, LOL.)
This is a delicious book and a must read for book clubs!