"All's Fair In Love and Chocolate" by Laura Florand from the anthology Kiss The Bride
Chocolate is simply a sexy food. That creamy texture just melts in your mouth. If you feel down or have had days that rival Sisyphus's eternal pushing that boulder uphill, a bite of chocolate makes it all go... Poof! There are days when I believe Eve gave in to temptation not for a bite of an apple but for a bite of an exquisite chocolate truffle masterpiece fashioned from the diabolical mind of a French chocolatier. Maybe a French chocolatier like Simon Casset in All's Fair in Love and Chocolate by Laura Florand, one of three novellas in the anthology Kiss The Bride.
Eloise Layne, a food blogger and an artist, has relocated to Paris from New York for one reason only: to explore the magic of food, specifically the magic Simon Casset wields when creating chocolate and sugar sculptures that "rose in whirls and swirls of colors and whimsy, as if gravity had no meaning, as if the only thing that would ever stop him was lack of oxygen up there in the stratosphere." Ellie knows getting close to Simon and his works of art will be difficult because while his work is very well known and available to the public, the man himself is very private.
Even though she dug deep and found enough "gumption" to move from New York to Paris to follow a long-held dream, Ellie is slightly intimidated by Simon and his ilk. After all a lowly food blogger doesn't have the gravitas, or so she thinks, to gain entree into Simon's "laboratoire", or any of the other great chocolatiers' like Sylvain Marquis or Dominique Richard either. She finds herself skulking outside Simon's shop sneaking pictures of the window displays with her phone, trying to figure out a way to afford a spy camera and comes face-to-face with Simon Casset himself. Simon accuses Ellie of spying for one of his rival chocolatiers so she invents a fake fiancé and tells Simon she's considering having him do the pieces for her wedding. Ellie thinks she's very cleverly found a way to get inside Simon's shop, instead of skulking around the display window.
I loved that this first meeting between Ellie and Simon was filled with such longing on both their parts. I know it had elements of the dreaded "insta-love", but the author made me believe that initial attraction was not only possible but right and ...more. Ellie takes one look at Simon and knows that her daydreams of meeting Simon in person need major revising and expanding. The reality of him hits her hard "with a sudden yearning that caught her by surprise, as if she had been playing with her back to the ocean." It has taken a lot of courage to leave her home, quit her job, leave family and friends behind, but Ellie is still kind of lacking that extra umption in her gumption. Vast, endless possibilities of all she can do and be and feel crash into her and though she's not quite ready to free fall just yet, she recognizes he is a life-changing force, and that's a little overwhelming for her. Ellie's world really gets tilted on its axis so it's little wonder that she's disoriented and discombobulated enough to blurt out that nonsense about being engaged and wanting Simon to do her wedding.
Simon appears somewhat reserved and unaffected by Ellie at that first meeting other than suspecting her of chocolate espionage, but there are signs that despite his outward controlled demeanor, he is as drawn to Ellie's exuberance as a man thirsting for water in a desert. He does nothing in moderation as his chocolate creations testify and his artistry suggests a well-developed sense of boldness. His choice of endurance racing as his sport of choice is the perfect way to challenge himself physically, emotionally, and psychologically. His confidence and fearlessness and need to push himself further are intertwined in all aspects of his life, but there is something missing that he has perhaps been looking for for a long time. When Simon sees Ellie for the first time her vitality, energy, and cheerfulness is as refreshing to him as water to drink and air to breath.
"Last year, on an endurance race, just when the going was at its grimmest, he had spotted the palm trees of an oasis in the distance. Oddly, the exact same feeling had shot through him when he took in that excited, bright face, that slightly rounded, not-particularly-muscled body.
A first thrill of exquisite relief and then: determined, focused, and very, very thirsty." (p.220)
"Thirsty" is such a wonderful word, don't you think, full of nuance and symbolism of how necessary she is to him, an element that means not just surviving, but thriving.
Sometimes seeing yourself through another's eyes is as freeing and enlightening as nothing else can be. Simon is a self-professed perfectionist, an "obsessed geek" who measures a line of icing by the millimeter, and trains for triathlons for relaxation. Control probably should be his middle name as he is a master of self-restraint and composure. He comes to know more of Ellie as he reads through her blog about her move to Paris, looks at her photos of things that caught her interest while she walked around Paris as well as the watercolors of tartes and cakes she's done. I loved that Ellie made him feel "sparkly" with her abundance of many exclamation points by his name, and it's there that the first seeds of something more than "insta-love" begins. He falls in love with her "laughter" and "generous good humor", with the way she is able to pull readers of her blog in, with the way she makes him feel "warm and relaxed and golden", with how she makes him forget to work. For a man who doesn't know how to relax, Ellie's "life and color and eagerness" is a gift from the gods.
Ellie hasn't known a lot of tenderness and thoughtfulness in previous relationships. There's been no one to treat her as if she mattered. She compares her strength and resiliency to a super bouncy ball. While Ellie "the super ball" bounces back from carelessly being tossed aside, that doesn't make the impact any less distressful. There's still disappointment, disillusion, and hurt to deal with so "Ellie never threw super balls across a room. She flinched for them, every single bounce."
When she returns to his shop the next day, this time inside the sanctum sanctorum, she sees Simon creating a sculpture that "rose and rose, from a tiny chocolate base the shape of a great splitting seed, sweeping out like great swirls of daydreaming, dark chocolate rising higher and higher, twining with white, then with little spears of coloring spun sugar" next to pixies of "white and dark chocolate, their spring-green wings of gossamer spun sugar."
Ellie has reached chocolate nirvana, inside Simon's laboratoire, watching him create, surrounded by cooling chocolates. Though Simon is pretty sure there is no fiancé, he plays along asking her which flavors of his she prefers for favors and a centerpiece, but she has never tasted anything from his shop which prompts him to ask why she chose him to do her wedding. It wasn't just his reputation as "un MOF" but:
"A longing to taste what she had heard so much about, and what was physically so beautiful. She gestured helplessly toward the half-finished structure, so magical, as if something as earthbound as food could be transmorphed into an airy grace that touched the sky. He made her feel like she could fly. Like it was all worth it. Eating. Life. This was the kind of thing you lived for. Right? 'I'm an artist. Your art is extraordinary.'" (p. 234)
And here is where my reference to Eve and chocolate is reinforced. Simon pulls out a tray of cooling chocolates, selects one, and offers it to Eve, er Ellie. I meant, Ellie. He watches as she takes in its aroma, explaining the pleasures of eating really good chocolate - the scent, the taste, the way it melts on your tongue, the way it yields to the bite of your teeth.
"She brought the chocolate to her mouth, almost afraid to eat something so beautiful. Somehow biting into it felt like stepping out if a plane without checking her parachute. Her stomach rushing into her mouth, her whole world changing, and maybe, maybe she might be in trouble." (p. 239)
Her first taste is a rush of pleasure and sensation overlaid with molten warmth and a mysterious "golden flavor." Ellie is completely verklempt. Me, too, Ellie.
"Oh," she whispered very softly. A tremble ran all through her. Oh, she really should have checked her parachute.
He took a step forward. He was now completely in her personal space, but that seemed right, since he was in her body. Melting in it.
'You're beautiful,' she said on a note of wonder. 'Inside,too.'
The muscles in his body flicked, one long little whiplash of shock all through him."
'The - the chocolate,' she whispered. 'The chocolate's beautiful.'
He blinked. 'Of course,' he said blankly.
That startled her. He truly didn't realize she could mean him, too? That she did mean him, too?
He held her eyes, as if he could parse every thought that passed through her mind and it was fascinating readings his mouth softened, and he ducked his head to her. 'You don't know what I'm like inside yet,' he whispered. (p. 239-240)
Simon is shocked and pleased when Ellie holds up the uneaten half of the "golden-flavored chocolate" and says, "I think you're like this."
While I loved Ellie and Simon, I became really annoyed at how long Cal Kenton, the fake fiancé whose leg is broken in a moped accident, hangs around. I sympathized with Simon's frustration and anger at Ellie's deception and lack of trust, especially after Ellie comes to know Simon. Even as she finally confesses that there is no fiancé, that she's a food blogger who was just too "embarrassed" to admit it, and that Cal was a layer of protection against getting carelessly tossed away again, Ellie expects Simon to think she's pathetic and to be angry. He's given her so many openings and opportunities yet she almost deliberately refuses to see that he knows or suspects the truth about good ole Cal. There's a point when he's practically begging her to dump the fake fiancé story and come clean. He tells her that if this were a movie, there could be a happy ending.
"'...you know, the offer still stands.'
'Which offer?' she asked warily, blinking hard and crinkling her nose as if it stung.
He closed his hand around her wrist. 'This offer, Ellie. To catch you.'" (pp. 295-296)
And later, Simon is still pushing for her to come out from behind Cal, he asks what's worrying her and is puzzled by her answer of "bouncing."
"'Minou.' One hand stroked firm and gentle all the way up her back, and he cradled her neck, pulling her back to see her face. 'What's this?'
Her lip trembled. The eyes that had been so cool and penetrating on their first meeting were so tender, 'I don't want to do it anymore. Bounce back. I'm here, in Paris, and this time I'm going to fly.'
He pulled her ponytail out gently, letting her hair spill, so that it slid between his skin and hers when he kneaded his hand against the nape of her neck. 'Of course you are. You have pixie dust.' A thumb skated, barely touching, over her cheekbones. How had he even noticed she had freckles? They were so faint. 'Minou. There's nothing I handle that's resilient. You might be, yes. I can believe that you can handle absolutely anything and come out more beautiful for it, but this' - his hands flexed into her waist and pulled her closer to him - 'you with me - trust me, I'm not going to drop it and hope it bounces.'" (pp. 300-301)
Every time I read a Laura Florand book, I think it should begin "Once upon a time" because there's always a fairy tale feeling to each story. There's something magical in the way Paris as a backdrop for this story (and many others) resonates with me for days, makes me believe anything is possible. As Ellie with all her insecurities and chewed up fingernails rides a bike along the quays I could see clearly the soft pink light of sunset with the sparkling Eiffel Tower like some kind of magical guardian off in the distance. Ellie walks through Simon's laboratoire with its "carpet of small perfect chocolates", "flowering bed of pastries," and the pixie sculpture where the chocolate pixies actually seem to come to life, laughing and flitting around a "world of swirling chocolate", and it seems like an otherworldly, enchanted fairy land. There's a line - "Come away, O human child" - from Yeats "The Stolen Child" placed just so as Ellie walks through the shop, going deeper with each step into Simon's fantastical world that fits perfectly with not only the way Ellie but myself as a reader is being lured, enticed, and seduced by Simon. This is a wonderfully delicious story, as silky, sensuous, and alluring as that piece of chocolate that tempted Eve. I'll never believe it was just an apple after reading "All's Fair in Love and Chocolate". Well, maybe a chocolate-covered apple. . .