Julia’s Chocolates by Cathy Lamb has a quirky cast of characters whose interactions, comments, and situations made me alternately laugh out loud and shake my head. Lamb combines truly tragic circumstances with strong characters to shows us how people can find the best in themselves and in each other.
And when I say tragic, I’m talking about physically abusive relationships involving women and children, drug and alcohol addiction, shamefully neglectful parents, and cruelty to animals. When you read the name and see the cover, you think that maybe you are in for a light romp of a read, but Lamb deals with some heavy stuff.
Granted, her approach may be too light handed for those who really like to dwell in dark places, but as my sister-in-law pointed out, “In books, I like the bad guys to be really bad, and I like my good guys to be really good.” Lamb achieves this in Julia’s Chocolates. There is no doubt who the bad folks are, and you know who you are rooting for from the very beginning.
Julia flees to her Aunt Lydia’s house after running out on her abusive fiancé. She is broken in many senses of the word. Her aunt represents all that she knows of stability in a life that has seen more neglect than affection.
Aunt Lydia is a force of nature who pushes and pulls those around her to get them to do what she thinks is best for them and all others concerned. She holds weekly get togethers for a group of women friends who are all troubled in one way or another—When Julia joins the group for the first time, her face still sports the technicolor bruise her fiance gave her just before the wedding. She joins the groups for Breast Power Psychic Night.
When I got to this part of the book, I thought, “Oh, boy, here we go. Another book from an ardent feminist’s point of view, making characters act in ways that real women never would.” (Annie G Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral is a classic example of the worst of this genre.) In this case, though, the characters do not want to be in these situations—they simply fall under Aunt Lydia’s power of personality and do what she tells them to for their own good. The results are often hilarious.
To give you some insight into Aunt Lydia, I pulled this from the book:
"'Breasts have a lot to say, Julia, you simply have to listen to them,' says Aunt Lydia, lover of giant ceramic pigs, poker, chickens, and pink houses with black doors to ward off evil spirits and seedy men."
During Getting to Know Your Vagina Night, Aunt Lydia says to one of the women, “Katie, let’s start with you.” To which Katie replies, “Oh, please God, no!” I think I would respond in much the same way. In conjunction with the evening’s theme, Aunt Lydia serves tacos and strawberry daiquiris, and I may never look at either of these things the same again. Suffice it so say, that, while a funny element in the book, I was glad my sister-in-law didn’t serve these when she hosted book club!
For those looking for gritty realism, you might find some of what you are looking for here, but I think you would ultimately be disappointed. Instead, you’ll find a world where the good people in a town band together against the people who would do harm to those who cannot protect themselves. It’s the way we want to believe our communities would pitch in to help neighbors in true need. I know that I like a little dose of this message now and again.
So, if you do too, indulge in some chocolate while you read this satisfying novel and let me know what you think.