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Thoughts on “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel

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

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquiel (cover)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.

My Thoughts

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.

Your Turn!

How do you feel about tall-tale elements in your novels?

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  • http://www.thebooknerdclub.blogspot.com mummazappa

    Is it magical realism? I don’t mind it so much but I don’t love it either. I’ve never read this one, but picked up a secondhand copy of another book of hers which I am yet to read (I can’t call the title to mind atm) which has an accompanying CD of music, I think the gist is each chapter has a song. I bought it out of curiosity mainly, but I never seem to get around to reading it.

    • Erin

      It probably is magical realism. To me, though, something like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is magical realism, whereas Like Water for Chocolate reads more like The Legend of Paul Bunyan. It’s too weird for me. Oh well. The book with CD sounds interesting — maybe I’d like that one better!

  • http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com Amanda

    This is the book that really showed me what “magicial realism” meant. I adored it! Jason and I read it together and got a big kick out of the magical moments, which were really nothing more than an intense form of thematic symbolism. We wrote up a back-and-forth review together, weaving a recipe into the review like the book (except we executed it no where near as well as Esquivel!). Since those recipes aren’t really ones you can cook, I thought having them woven throughout the chapter was a fun way to look at the whole thing, as if it was meant to be a cookbook and the story kept getting in the way.

    I’ve actually been disappointed with everything I’ve read since then that’s supposed to be magical realism, because none of it is as bold as that one. I’m anxious to try some of Esquivel’s other works. I know she has one that requires you to listen to music in certain intervals as the pages have nothing but artwork on them. It’s fascinating!!

    • Erin

      That’s cool that you and Jason read it together and then wrote a review in the style of the book! I can definitely see that Like Water for Chocolate is a good book, but it is not at all my style. The format drove me a little nuts, I hated the ending, and the magical realism felt way too tall-tale-ish to me. Maybe that’s what magical realism is supposed to be, but I much prefer the style of something like The Metamorphosis. Like Water for Chocolate felt much more mythical or legend-like, which I didn’t enjoy. Oh well, different strokes for different folks :-) The music book does sound interesting, though!

  • http://www.linussblanket.com Nicole

    I find that I can’t separate this book out from having to read it and watch the movie in spanish class. I remember liking it, but I also remember being really thrilled that I actually understood it…well parts anyway.

    • Erin

      Ah, yes, I can see where that would blur things a bit — it’s so exciting to understand something in another language! I think it would be interesting to watch the movie and see how they did all the larger-than-life elements.

  • BibliophileBytheSea

    I have a tough time with books like this. I seem to do better with the movie version.

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I haven’t read this one, but I have seen the movie. It was a long time ago, but I remember liking it. I also think I would love the book because it falls into the “foodie” genre, and I just can’t get enough of those types of books. Great review on this one. I also really like the long quote you provided!

    • Erin

      If you like foodie books and are okay with a lot of magical realism, I think you’d really enjoy this one!

  • http://www.stephandtonyinvestigate.com Steph

    I haven’t read this one, but I must admit that “tall tales” are really appealing to me. I really love magical realism because everything is so big and strange and over the top. This actually sounds a lot like a book I would enjoy… I love the idea of the recipes being interspersed into the story!

    • Erin

      I think you’d love this book, then! I don’t mind magical realism, but for some reason this felt…different. Maybe this one was true magical realism and the other “MR” titles I’ve read have really been something else!

  • http://www.theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com The Literary Omnivore

    Magical realism bugs me a little; it feels a bit sloppy if it’s not explained, and I feel magical realism tends to just toss things in.

    • Erin

      I’ve liked the other magical realism books I’ve read, but this one I just did not like. I found it jarring, and it got in the way of the story for me.

  • http://www.historyofshe.wordpress.com She

    I feel as though I felt much the same way as you did about this one. I didn’t love it, but I didn’t hate it either. Truthfully, I can’t remember much about the story now.

    • Erin

      I forgot most of what it was about; I’m glad I’d mostly written my thoughts down when I read the book last fall! Definitely not one I’ll revisit any time soon.

  • http://lostinagoodstory.blogspot.com/ Joanna

    I’m a big fan of magical realism, the ‘tall-tale’ aspect. I didn’t LOVE this particular book but I liked it. I loved the way food was interwoven into the story, as well as the magic. Would make a great book club book, actually!

    • Erin

      This one felt more tall-tale than magical realism to me, but maybe that’s just because the other magical realism I’ve experienced seemed very different from Like Water for Chocolate. I liked how the food was woven in, but I didn’t like the recipe thing. It did make for some good online discussion, certainly — especially concerning the ending!

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I felt much the same way you did…very “meh.” I’ve kept it on the shelf, though, because I figure it’s short enough that I can read again and figure out if I’m missing the hype. Wish the recipes weren’t so complicated or I’d try! 😉

    In terms of magical realism, if you’re looking for more I’d recommend Isabel Allende (Loved The House of the Spirits) or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ooooh, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It is tough to get used to…but if done well I think it’s so beautiful.

    • Erin

      I got my copy from the library, and it’s not one I’ll be buying! I kept thinking, Ooh, this would be fun to cook! And then as I got further along in the recipe, I’d realize how complex it was!

      Garcia Marquez and Rushdie are both on my TBR list. I’ve enjoyed most of the magical realism I’ve read, but Like Water for Chocolate felt…different, somehow. I’m definitely willing to try more. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • http://litandlife.blogspot.com Lisa

    I’ve been thinking I should read this since I liked the movie adaptation so much. But this sounds like maybe the rare case of the movie was better than the book.

    • Erin

      I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t compare the two! I can say, though, that I imagine I’d have preferred the movie. On paper, the story felt all off balance to me. But, I seem to be in the minority!

  • http://www.readinasinglesitting.com Stephanie

    I love both tall tales and magic realism–the weirder the better for me! This sounds like something that’s right up my alley, and I might see if I can pick up a copy (perhaps when my Kindle finally arrives!). I think some of the jarring elements might be translation difficulties at the larger discourse level–I used to have the same issues in Russian class or when reading German translations at uni. The structure of the narrative can sometimes be unfamiliar to an English reader, and doesn’t necessarily render well into English.

    Thanks for the review!

    • Erin

      Ooh, then I definitely think you’ll enjoy this one! I do wonder how much translation affects a book, both language and structure. I think it probably depends both on the book itself and on the translator. I hope you like this one!

  • http://reviews.rebeccareid.com Rebecca Reid

    I think the only things I LOVED about this book were the things you hated! I love the magical realism — far more accessible than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude, which I also enjoy but it’s weirder. And I love the way that recipes are interwoven into the story. I, however, didn’t love the story without those elements.

    My understanding of the “Months” is that it was published in a Mexican magazine over the course of a year. One for each month. I like the symbolism your group came up with though!

    • Erin

      That’s funny that we liked completely opposite aspects of this book! I really enjoy how the same book can elicit such different responses. Thanks for the clarification about the Months format — that definitely makes sense! I’m quite happy to have a concrete explanation. I wasn’t really buying that life cycle idea!