I read this more years ago than I’d like to admit, in a Spanish class at some point. Having taken Spanish from middle school all the way through majoring in it in college, I cannot remember exactly when. I any case, many years have passed and, since I first read it in Spanish (not my first language), it was really interesting for my reread to be in English. And I appreciate the chance this book club choice (chosen in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month here in the US) has allowed me to revisit a classic.
Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of Tita, a woman living in Mexico at the turn of the century. As a young girl she spends most of her time in the kitchen and develops into quite a skillful cook. When she first meets Pedro, they know from the first look that they have a love unlike any other, a passion that time cannot dampen. Which turns out to be very good, because between Tita’s mother not allowing her to get married and lots of intervening drama and separation, it is many, many years before Pedro and Tita finally have a chance at truly being together.
Told through a journal-like format, each entry with its own recipe that guides us through Tita’s life and experiences, as well as many other home remedies and quite a bit of romance, this is an incredibly mystical love story. I have to say, and to be fair I don’t remember well enough to know if the original is like this as well, the flow of the story was quite choppy. The language was simple and straightforward, which is fine, but there were jumps in time (sometimes days, sometimes years) with no notes or indications to help the reader navigate that, which was a bit confusing at times. Also, just in general, I felt that the writing itself could have been smoother. I read that the author began as a screenwriter and that totally makes sense to me. This novel has the feel of a screenplay, jumping from important bit to important bit, without a lot of explanation or elaboration – just the bare minimum. It was definitely a stylistic choice, and not an issue with the editing, or even the translation, I wouldn’t think. And that’s fine, but I am not sure it was my favorite style. The only exception to that was with the recipes. Throughout each “chapter,” the recipe in focus, and very specific instructions for it, was described in depth. It was a unique and charming story-telling technique.
As for the plot and characters, this was a very fairy-tale like novel, meaning that action sort of took center stage and character development was a bit secondary. However, that worked out alright because the magical realism the story was told with was really the highlight anyways. Tita’s skill in the kitchen turns into a much greater power after her emotions take on such great strength after her first meeting with, and subsequent dramatic separations from and reunions with, Pedro. It was so fun and endearing to read how her sadness while cooking one meal made everyone sick, while her passion during another cooking session drove her sister to run around naked and basically go on a sex-binge. In fact, here might also be a great place to note that there is a lot of sex in this book. Both as far as how much it happens to how openly it’s discussed and how central a role it takes in the stories of these characters. Overall, the drama and the romance of this novel were really a fascinating mix of telenovela and traditional magical realism. I was definitely into that vibe. Yet with the straightforward writing style and language Esquivel uses, nothing seems abnormal; the good and the bad, however phenomenal, are just taken in stride by all characters. The casualness of this magical realism really lent to the “fairy tale” feel of the novel and was also something I really enjoyed. And the recipes all sounded so good that I’m definitely planning to look up some (easier) versions of them to try at home!
Altogether, this was truly a delightful read. Even the difficult, violent or emotional parts are swept in with the rest and told in a way that isn’t overly affecting (think like the original Grimm’s fairy tales – kind of horrible, really, and enlightening about the issues of the time and place, yet the “reality” of the story is too compromised by magic to be able to be taken too seriously). Entertaining and fast, this was a great reread for me.
Enjoy these few passages that stuck out to me while I was reading:
“Those huge stars have lasted for millions of years by taking care never to absorb any of the fiery rays lovers send up at them night after night. To avoid that, the star generates so much inside itself that it shatters the rays into a thousand pieces. Any look it receives is immediately repulsed, reflected back onto the earth, like a trick done with mirrors. That is the reason the stars shine so brightly at night.”
“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 would 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.”
“Life has taught her that it was not that easy; there are few prepared to fulfill their desires whatever the cost, and the right to determine the course of one’s own life would take more effort that she had imagined.”