Five Quarters of the Orange
is a 2001 novel by English author Joanne Harris. Set primarily in the village of Les Laveuses in present-day France, it follows Framboise Dartigen, the daughter of a local pariah, Mirabelle. On a parallel track, the novel explores the younger Dartigen’s childhood while France was occupied by the Nazis. Dartigen painfully recalls her fraught relationships with her mother, as well as her brother, Cassis, and sister, Reine-Claude. When Dartigen was nine, her mother abandoned her and her siblings. Their fears and loneliness were in turn exploited by a young Nazi soldier Tomas, who coaxed from them the identities and affiliations of Nazi dissidents in Les Laveuses. The novel is focused on the violation of innocence at the hands of the Nazis, and how it was facilitated by the moral weaknesses of many Europeans.
The novel’s present-day timeline begins fifty-six years after the flight of Dartigen’s mother during World War II. Dartigen has been widowed for two decades. Having established a family elsewhere, she heads back to Les Laveuses, near the Loire Valley, to rebuild her family’s historic farm. Acutely aware that her mother’s name is commonly considered a stain on the town’s history, she takes up the alias Francoise Simon. She starts a restaurant business that has great success; eventually, it attracts the attention of a famous food critic, who elevates it to national acclaim. After a review is published in a French newspaper, Dartigen gets a surprise visit from her nephew Yannick. She soon finds that Yannick intends to piggyback on her business to profit with his wife, Laure. The worst aspect of his arrival, however, is that it threatens Dartigen’s carefully cultivated dual identity.
The novel’s World War II timeline follows Dartigen, Cassis, and Reine-Claude, beginning just as they mourn the loss of their father. Mirabelle is a harsh and unsympathetic woman, wracked by debilitating migraines. She passionately cultivates a grove of fruit trees but fails to provide the same care to her children, preferring the role of disciplinarian. Looking back, Dartigen sympathizes a little with her mother, who had to raise three kids while running an entire farm on her own. Once the Nazis overtake Les Laveuses, her mother becomes harsher than ever before. The children find momentary escape in the form of Tomas, a young German soldier who quickly learns he can get them to talk with small bribes of contraband goods.
Tomas culls information out of Dartigen and her siblings on the whereabouts and activities of their neighbors and friends. Because Dartigen is the youngest, she is particularly vulnerable to Tomas’s charm. The information that she provides ironically
sets up the conditions for Tomas’s murder at the hands of villagers. The Gestapo retaliates by indiscriminately killing ten residents of Les Laveuses. Fearing for her life, Mirabelle flees the family farm. Dartigen grows despondent, and never really recovers from the trauma. Even in the present day, she blames herself for starting the chain reaction of violence.
After the decades stretch out enough space between Dartigen and World War II, she learns to accept that her memories cannot really be stamped out. At the end of the novel, she newly embraces her past, realizing that the whole of her story is far more powerful than her miseries; in fact, she draws wisdom and power from her suffering. She forgives herself as well as Mirabelle, and mends the broken bridges between herself and her two daughters. Five Quarters of the Orange
shows that people always exceed their tragedies and moral failures, no matter how intense, rich, and bound up with historical and emotional significance.