I recently finished reading the book Blackberry Wine, written by Joanne Harris. It is the first novel of hers I have read, though I have seen the movie Chocolat which is based on her novel of the same name.
The story is fun, comfortable, faintly fantastical. The main character is Jay Mackintosh, a washed-up English author who wrote a novel called Jackapple Joe many years ago and has not written a decent thing since. Living with his girlfriend Kerry, he one day sees an advertisement for a house in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a French village that Joanne Harris invented (so don't look for it on a map, you won't find it). Looking at this house brings back memories of Jay's childhood, which he partly spent at the farm of an old man named Joe Cox. Joe had once shown Jay a picture of this exact same French house and had told Jay that he planned to move to this house and begin a new garden there, since Joe's house was in danger of being bulldozed by heartless land developers.
Much of the story dwells on the summers Jay spent in Kirby Monckton, a Yorkshire town. These flashbacks are split between the lessons Joe gave Jay in gardening, and a series of skirmishes Jay has with the neighborhood kids who are mean nasty bullies and nothing else. The latter part did nothing for the novel except to demonstrate, painfully, how Jay came to learn that life is not fair. As for Joe's lessons in gardening, the scenes are touching but they did not influence Jay in any significant way except to make Jay fascinated with Joe as a person (his novel Jackapple Joe is loosely based on Joe Cox himself; as readers we never find out exactly how much Jay changed or hid). I was reminded of a remark Roger Ebert once made about the movie Dead Poets Society: that a great poetry teacher should inspire his students to love poetry, not to love the teacher.
But the novel's greatest flaw was that it took far too long to get anywhere. In the present, Jay moves to this house in Lansquenet and finds out that his neighbor is a reclusive, mysterious social outcast named Marise, and she has a daughter named Rosa. I knew right away that (a) Marise was an exception to the gossipy, shallow social atmosphere elsewhere in the village of Lansquenet, and (b) that Jay was going to fall in love with her. Yet it is only in the last quarter of the novel that we begin to find out who she really is, and that - gasp - she has a deep dark secret! This is suddenly revealed, and though her secret is as terrible and as clearly imagined as Rochester's in Jane Eyre, it has no serious consequence in the novel, because the novel ends precisely fourteen pages after she finishes telling Jay this secret. A plot twist is only as good as its effect upon the other elements of the novel. In Blackberry Wine, the revelation explains the oddities of Marise's behavior, but it does nothing to help Jay understand his own role in her life, and it brings up additional complications in the plot that are not resolved.
The five-act system in storytelling is in decline. Shakespeare perfected this system: introduction, complication, climax, resolution, outcome. First the main characters and their problems are introduced; they interact in a way that produces one or more larger problems; those problems reach a height and create a crisis that cannot be ignored or easily alleviated; then one or more characters resolves to face this crisis in a certain way; and we see the final consequences of that resolution, we see if the effort was successful or unsuccessful. Most stories today focus too much on introductions, take too long to demonstrate the complications, and then the climax occurs so late in the story that there is little or no time for a resolution. I know that every story does not have to follow this pattern, but I think this pattern is the best way for an author to realize his or her story fully.
So I guess my advice to Joanne Harris is that the climactic conversation between Jay and Marise should have happened halfway through the novel, not at the very end. Shakespeare usually made sure things really came to a boil in the third act. Romeo killing Tybalt, Hamlet giving his soliloquy and killing Polonius, Brutus and Cassius killing Caesar, Lear yelling at the storm, Macbeth killing his best friend and subsequently seeing his ghost walk through the dinner hall - all of these events happened in the third acts of their respective plays. In The Phantom of the Opera, it is halfway through the novel that Christine meets the phantom, Erik, and finds out how truly haunted and psychotic he is; this revelation influences the way she sees the phantom for the remainder of the novel, and it makes the phantom much more terrifying to us because we realize that, even when stripped of his cloak and his parlor tricks, he is truly a monster through and through (though, I thought, a sympathetic one).
Blackberry Wine is not a bad novel, but considering the simplicity of the story I thought it could have been structured according to Shakespeare's conventions and thereby made into something more than just the sum of its parts. In the end, it is a story about believing in yourself. Joe tells Jay, "You've got to create the right conditions for magic to work." Well, I wish the novel had made more of an effort to show that moral, rather than just tell it. Most of the novel is Jay bumbling around without a clue, listening to his strange hallucinations of a long-gone Joe, making advances toward Marise that are mostly ignored, working on a new book that we as readers never get to peruse, and reminiscing about a gypsy girl whom he met as a kid and who never gave him a chance to express his feelings for her. Jay is a very passive character, and I don't like passive characters. If you are going to give a character his own novel, he'd better be strong enough to do something that really strikes the reader.