Like Water for Chocolate
by Laura Esquivel
From Goodreads: Earthy, magical, and utterly charming, this tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico became a best-selling phenomenon with its winning blend of poignant romance and bittersweet wit.
The number one bestseller in Mexico and America for almost two years, and subsequently a bestseller around the world, Like Water For Chocolate is a romantic, poignant tale, touched with moments of magic, graphic earthiness, bittersweet wit – and recipes.
A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her, so that Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.
This was a buddy read with Danielle at Books, Vertigo & Tea. You can find her review here.
When the subject of our doing another buddy read came up again, we had some criteria for our selection. I was looking for something by an international author, while Danielle wanted to read either a magical realism novel or crime fiction. I did a quick search for ‘Latin or South American magical realism’, found a few titles that sounded iteresting without being a million pages long, and sent my suggestions onto Danielle. After a short discussion, we settled on Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. It fulfilled my international author requirement (Esquivel is from Mexico), and it worked for one of the slots in Danielle’s 2018 reading challenge (a book by an author of a different ethnicity from yours).
We each picked up a copy and set to reading.
Because it was a massive bestseller in Mexico and the United States when it was first published, I was a little leery of Like Water for Chocolate. I’ve had an uneven history with bestsellers, and dislike most of the ones I read. Fortunately, Like Water for Chocolate was not one of them.
The story is focused on the De La Garza family, a small clan of only women who work a ranch in the Mexican countryside, and though conflict is going on all around them, none of it really seems to touch them. The story opens during Tita’s childhood, giving a necessary background into her cooking skills and the cruel fate laid out for her- to remain unmarried so she can care for her mother until her mother dies. Had Tita remained within the confines of the family’s ranch, this might not have been such a problem, but during her trips into town, Tita falls madly in love with Pedro, who falls in love with her in return.
Her mother, Mama Elena, sees this happening and forces her eldest daughter Rosaura to marry Pedro instead, layering on the cruelty by insisting that Tita bake the wedding cake. As her tears drip into the batter, the cake takes on Tita’s sorrow and causes the guests to act strangely at the wedding feast. This is where Tita first learns of her ability to pour her emotions into her cooking so that it affects those around her, and is one of the reasons her passion for Pedro can never truly die out.
I found Like Water for Chocolate captivating from the first pages. It is set up as though it’s for a magazine, with the chapters divided into months and beginning with a recipe that pertains to what is about to happen. Other recipes are wound into the telling of the story, and their descriptions blend into the story so that one knows how the making of mole can turn into a passionate scene, or how, in Tita’s hands, rose petals can inspire the rise of a local legend.
In the United States, food is often treated as part of a health regime. We have a million diets that prescribe this food or that, or tell us to get rid of entire food groups altogether in order to make us healthy. To the rest of the world, food in an integral part of culture and the preparation of meals, whether it’s a simple breakfast or a celebratory feast, brings families together.
Food’s sensuality also tends to be forgotten in the US. Not just the flavor, but the color and texture of food, and how it makes us feel. Food is fuel for the brain and body; food is a reward for a hard workout; food is something to be logged in and journaled about with every calorie accounted for. But I wonder if, in all this fueling of the body, we forget how food fuels the soul, as well.
Suffice it to say that Tita isn’t worried about her waistline when she cooks for her family. They all have to endure Mama Elena’s tyranny, but when Tita cooks they have something to look forward to. Especially if Tita has had some brief encounter with Pedro, or exchanged a long look with him…
But it’s this passion-from-afar relationship Tita and Pedro share that I often rolled my eyes about. Yes, I know this story is about denied passions and the power of love and food, but there’s a section where Pedro has left Mexico and Tita finds herself being courted by a wonderful man named John. John is the town’s doctor, and though he was born and raised in the US, he loves this little area– and Tita especially– and so he wishes to stay. He is devoted to Tita, is gentle, and while he may not have Pedro’s fiery passion he is the dependable sort of man that any woman could fall for.
But of course, this is a romance, and Tita’s wild (irrational at that point) passion for Pedro will not be denied, and though she thinks she wants to marry John, Tita simply can’t make up her mind.
It’s the ‘I can’t decide who to fall in love with: the bad boy I can’t have, or the dependable man who’s in love with me’ choice that always seems to pop up. It drives me nuts and it’s why I don’t read many romances.
Tita’s indecision aside, though, I truly enjoyed Like Water for Chocolate. I read it in two sittings only because I had to close the book and go back to work on day one. On day two, I sat down, intending to just read a chapter or two and finished the rest of the book before I realized it. Esquivel weaves an enchanting tale of love, family, and food with a narrative that pulls the reader into Tita’s world in a matter of a few pages. So while I wanted to sit down over coffee with Tita and tell her that endlessly mooning over Pedro, a married man, isn’t good for her, I would definitely recommend Like Water for Chocolate.