I read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel for an online discussion group last fall but never posted my thoughts here. It’s not a book I would have picked up myself, and while I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it either. The book was translated into English by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen.
About the Book
The novel is divided into twelve chapters. Each begins with a recipe, and each is named for a month of the year. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, the great-niece of the novel’s main character, Tita. This narrator only appears very briefly on the first and last pages of the book; the rest of the story is a straightforward narration of Tita’s life.
Tita lives with her mother (Mama Elena) and elder sisters (Gertrudis and Rosaura) on a ranch in Mexico. From her birth on the ranch’s kitchen table, Tita has a lifelong connection with food and cooking, a theme that runs throughout the book. As the youngest daughter, Tita is bound by tradition to remain unmarried, instead caring for her mother until Mama Elena has passed away. This cruel tradition presents a problem, as by the age of fifteen, Tita has already fallen deeply in love with Pedro. Mama Elena refuses to allow Tita to marry. So begins Tita’s long struggle with her mother, her obligations, and love.
I mostly enjoyed the story of Like Water for Chocolate. I liked Tita and a few other characters, and the ones I hated were fun to hate. The ending completely ruined the book for me, which was unfortunate, but since I can’t discuss that without revealing some pretty major plot points, I’ll stick to everything else!
I did have to get used to a few things as I read. First, I didn’t like the tall-tale elements that were heavily featured: Tita’s tears creating a stream that flows down a staircase, the food she cooks while upset causing everyone who eats it to become violently ill, and so forth. I haven’t really encountered writing like that before, and I can’t say I’m a fan.
I was also confused by the use of months for chapter titles. At first I thought the book took place over the course of a single year, which it does not. Someone in the discussion group suggested that the months represented Tita’s life as a year, from birth (January) to death (December), but I never really warmed up to that idea. Eventually I began ignoring the chapter titles, since they just confused me.
Each chapter begins with a recipe, which is a fun idea, except that I didn’t like the format. The page preceding each chapter lists ingredients. The first paragraph of each chapter begins with a bit of the recipe. But then the story picks up, with the character(s) performing the steps in the recipe. A bit later, the dry, instructional text of the recipe returns for a paragraph or two. The tense switch from past (story) to present (recipe) is a little jarring, and the recipe and story don’t really flow together. An example:
With shaking hands, Tita tried to go on preparing the mole as if nothing had happened.
When the almonds and sesame seeds have been thoroughly ground, mix them with the stock in which the turkey was cooked and add salt to taste. Grind the cloves, cinnamon, anise, and pepper, in a mortar, adding the roll last, after frying it in lard with chopped onion and garlic.
Next combine this mixture with the wine and blend well.
While she was grinding spices, Chencha tried in vain to capture Tita’s interest. But as much as she exaggerated the events she had witnessed in the plaza, describing in bloody detail the violent battles that had taken place in the village, Tita showed no more than a flicker of interest.
I would have preferred the recipe to come before the chapter, with the ingredients, and then the characters to prepare each dish in the actual story.
There is this one beautiful, long quote that I loved. I think it sums up quite nicely the theme of the book. One character is sharing his grandmother’s wisdom with another:
“She said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves;…we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. That fire, in short, is its food. If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens and not a single match will ever be lighted.” (p. 112)
Overall, not my favorite book. I do think it was well written and interesting, just not a book for me.
How do you feel about tall-tale elements in your novels?