Book Review: Like Water For Chocolate

Like Water For Chocolate is pitched as a powerful love story set in turn-of-the-century Mexico, laced with magic and liberally sprinkled with recipes. I started the book with great expectations of a richly-told story that would stir up dangerously powerful sugar cravings … but in reality it was a bittersweet book I was I glad to finish.

fiction | romance | magical realism | foodie | cultural (Mexico)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

the blurb

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.

For the next twenty-two years 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.

Author Laura Esquivel | Published by Transworld in March 2010 | Pages272 (kindle)
Translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen

my thoughts

First things first – the cover.  Not a fan!  It looked gloomy and saccharine … and a little bit cheap.  But the reviews said great things about the story, and I’ll openly admit to being enticed by the bylines, and the lure of magical realism. So I got stuck in.

Like Water For Chocolate is the story of the De la Garza family; two generations of women running a large family ranch during the turbulent revolutionary uprising at the turn of the century.  It’s a time of great unrest, when ancient traditions dictate behaviours, and when womens’ options are inversely proportional to the burdens and expectations upon them.

The book is written in twelve chapters; one chapter for each month.  Each chapter starts with a recipe for a traditional Mexican dish, presented on a beautifully hand-illustrated cover page.  However, the story itself spans a 22-year period, and I would occasionally find myself lost in the author’s timeline, having to skip backwards to make sure I’d not missed a crucial note telling me that the April chapter wasn’t actually in the same year as the preceding March chapter, and that the December chapter wasn’t even in the same decade.  It turned out I hadn’t missed anything – this is my first criticism of the story; the timeline jumps are very presumptive and weren’t entirely conducive to a smooth reading experience.

Anyway, back to the story.  The head of the De la Garza household is the fearsome Mama Elena; a cruel and spiteful woman who rules the family with a fist of iron.  Her three daughters – Gertrudis, Rosaura, and Tita – couldn’t be living more different lives, despite being under the same roof.  Whilst Rosaura is the apple that didn’t fall far from the tree, Gertrudis is wilfully independent, and Tita, the youngest, is the family’s Cinderella. Make no mistake though, this is no fairy tale.

By Mexican tradition the youngest daughter of the family is forbidden to marry, dedicating her life to caring for her mother until the day she dies. This is the fate that’s befallen Tita, sacrificing her love for Pedro and resigning herself to a life of servitude. Tita finds some comfort, however, from sharing her day-to-day life with her beloved Nacha; the family’s cook and the woman who raised her from a baby … Mama Elena’s neglect and cruelty towards Tita started the day she was born. Growing up in the kitchen, Tita learns Nacha’s endless recipes and techniques and tricks, quickly becoming a superb and instinctive cook.  Cooking becomes Tita’s emotional outlet, pouring her passion and fury into the food, often imbuing its diners with overpowering moods they’re compelled to act upon.

With a little imagination and a full heart one can always prepare a decent meal.

In a twist of supreme cruelty, Mama Elena forbids Tita from marrying her sweetheart, Pedro.  Instead she demands that Pedro marries Rosaura, triggering one heartbreak after another, and leaving no member of the family unharmed.  Forced to live under the same roof as the newly weds, Tita’s emotional state becomes increasingly fragile, and Mama Elena rarely misses an opportunity to inflict more suffering upon her youngest daughter.

Unquestionably, when it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying or dominating, Mama Elena was a pro.

The book isn’t all doom and gloom though. There are moments of genuine tenderness between Tita and Nacha that help lift the pervading sense of frustration and loneliness.  And when Tita’s breakdown inevitably happens, the compassion and warmth administered by Tita’s rescuer, Dr Brown, presents an opportunity for the story to take a more uplifting turn.

As I mentioned earlier, the book’s timeline is rather disorienting, and as I reached December it became clear the story’s narrator wasn’t who I thought.  I found this unexpected twist to be the sole redeeming feature of the book’s finale.  The ending felt hollow and rushed; a missed opportunity to inject some absolution or justice, and to create a sense of fulfilment for the reader.  

On a few occasions I was troubled by the way in which book appeared to romanticise non consensual sex, in particular it recounted a rape with gobsmacking insensitivity. Yes, I know this story was set at a time when views were very different, but it was written at the end of the 1980’s, and author whose books include sensitive subjects should be able to address them with a degree of intelligence.

I was rather underwhelmed by the ‘magical realism’ theme.  Or perhaps I should say overwhelmed: the haunting, the possession, even the symbolic crocheted bedspread (which could have been a rather charming tale in itself) were blunt, brash and lacked nuance. More fable and folklore than magical realism.

Whilst reading the book I frequently got the impression that the author was writing as though she was transcribing a movie she was either watching on screen or in her mind’s eye – so she was writing fast and without the luxury of time to write with any real depth.  There were points in the book where the story wondered off at a tangent, with such minute detail it was difficult to see how it benefited the story other than to clumsily describe irrelevant details of the scene to the reader.  At times the writing felt childish, at others it felt overwrought.

It’s not all bad!  I admire how the author used recipes to set the tone for each chapter, and to signal seasonal changes.  Each recipe served as the frontispiece for the forthcoming chapter, with the actual cooking instructions being cleverly woven into the story itself.  Equally, the story shone a light very effectively on the power of bitterness to consume and distort lives, the importance of independence, and the alchemy of food.

Link to Judy

Like Water For Chocolate is available now from Amazon in print and kindle formats, and from Waterstones in print.

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