Joanne Harris
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Buy *Coastliners* online

Joanne Harris
368 pages
August 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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If Joanne Harris' popular Chocolat made a beautiful, romantic (if perhaps too Hollywood) film, then her newest novel, also set in France, also seems perfect for the screen. This book, unlike her others, does not focus on food, but rather on community and on pride. Coastliners is big, bold, sultry. Like many stories set in France, this novel is steeped in generations of family secrets and passions; it seems just begging for a cast including Gerard Depardieu.

Coastliners' protagonist is Mado, a seascape painter who has been living for a decade in Paris but returns to her island home of LeDevin to care for her estranged father and to examine her need to return. This is a tiny, isolated island whose people are quite poor:

"Indeed it scarcely deserves island status at all, being little more than a cluster of sandbanks with pretensions, a rocky spine to lift it out of the Atlantic, a couple of villages, a small fish-packing factory, a single beach."
The community of Les Salants, her ancestral town, is feuding with the more prosperous town of La Houssiniere. Enmities going back centuries still exist and will not easily be repaired.

Mado's elderly father, Grosjean, a boat owner, has become a hermit, barely speaking to anyone yet full of rages and passions. He is "deeply superstitious." Grosjean is not well and takes poor care of himself. Although Mado is not his favored daughter (that daughter lives in Tangiers with a husband and two little boys), and he alternately rants and raves and is deathly silent, eventually the two come to a sort of understanding.

The focus of the novel's action is the citizens' heroic, sometimes death-defying efforts to save Les Salants and its livelihoods, fishing and some tourism. Mado and a British friend, Flynn (who Mado's father has let into his tiny world), lead the efforts to save the one good beach from erosion. Mado tackles the project to re-involve herself in community and, in part, to win her father's love. A hint of romance surfaces between the two leaders, but this comes to little and is almost incidental against the raging sea and familial emotions of the novel.

The pull of tradition and the Catholic church are fiercely at play in the two communities. Mado must once again accept these things if she is to stay. Helping the community survive and witnessing her father become a bit stronger emotionally help her accept this isolated life she has chosen, as she reiterates throughout the book what she calls the beachcomber's maxim: "Everything returns." (This might have been a much more effective title for Harris' novel.)

The reader might wonder how someone not French can grasp the French sensibilities and passions so well. Part of the answer lies in the fact that, although born in England, Harris has a French mother and extended family in France. A former teacher, the novelist lives in England with her husband and daughter. She has also just come out with a cookbook, My French Kitchen: A Book of 120 Treasured Recipes.

Coastliners is a strong novel examining the power of a severe climate and generations of families with long-standing traditions and a fierce pride. Readers who want a traditional love story or who depend on lively dialogue may be disappointed. Vivid descriptions of the climate, the place and the centrality of community remain at the book's core.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book

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