Since I started Read Harder 2017 with an obvious (for me) pick, I wanted my second book of the year to come from one of the categories that took me further out of my comfort zone. I picked #4: “Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.” Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s debut novel Like Water for Chocolate quickly caught my eye.
Mama Elena is a widowed rancher who runs her large household with an iron fist. It has long been tradition in her family that the youngest daughter remains unmarried in order to care for her mother in her old age. That duty now falls to Elena’s daughter Tita, a sensitive teenager who is also a gifted cook. When a young man named Pedro falls in love with Tita, Mama Elena informs the couple that Tita will never be allowed to marry. Pedro then proposes to Tita’s older sister Rosaura in order to stay near the woman he loves–with both joyous and painful consequences for all involved.
If you think this sounds a bit like a soap opera, you’re not far off. Like Water for Chocolate has drama, intrigue, romance, betrayal, and secrets galore. It also has a strong thread of magical realism that enters the novel through Tita’s cooking. Each chapter opens with one of Tita’s favorite recipes, and at several points in the novel, Tita’s emotions influence those who eat her food. The most evocative passage involves quail in rose petal sauce–a dish that carries Tita’s passion for Pedro in every bite.
I loved the dreamy, folkloric feel of Like Water for Chocolate, and devoured (pun intended) the first half of the novel in less than a day, eager to see where the story would go next. It’s the kind of book that made me think of high school English, and not in a bad way. I wanted to sit down and write an essay on the symbolism of heat in Tita’s kitchen, or one about Tita’s oldest sister Gertrudis as a sex-positive feminist.* Although the English translation is sometimes clunky, I found it a fast and enjoyable read.
My interest dropped a bit, however, when the book introduced a love triangle. An American-born doctor named John Brown develops an interest in Tita and begins courting her during a period of distance between Tita and Pedro. (If that’s all you want to know about where the book goes, stop reading now.)
As usual, I quickly found myself siding with the second banana in the love triangle.** In fact, I thought John was so much better for Tita than Pedro that I started to get annoyed with the book. Pedro is fickle and often weak, with devastating consequences for Tita and her family. He takes the path of least resistance and seems guided only by his physical desire for Tita. John is sincere, gentle, and caring, and more than once shows that he is truly devoted to Tita’s well-being and happiness. He also has the tremendous advantage of not being married to Tita’s sister.
Interestingly, I’m not entirely sure that the book disagrees with me. In one notable passage, Tita wonders “if the feeling of peace and security John gave her wasn’t true love, and not the agitation and anxiety she felt when she was with Pedro.” Tita and Pedro’s passion for each other brings them both happiness during the course of the novel, but it also brings tremendous pain, not only to Pedro and Tita but to Rosaura and her children. The book’s ending, while dramatic and romantic, also has more than a hint of darkness.
But the fact that I thought about the choice between John and Pedro long after I finished Like Water for Chocolate is a good thing. I also found myself thinking about Tita’s recipes, about femininity and war, and about guilt and family duty. If you’re looking for a central American novel, I can definitely recommend this one.
Rating: Library Loan
* OK, I probably would not have used the word “sex-positive” in a 1998 high school essay. But you get my drift.
** I am probably the only person in history who was Team Joey and Rachel.