Tuesday, January 24, 2012

book review: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Translated from the Spanish by Carol and Thomas Christensen.

The backstory: 
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel's first novel, is one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

The basics: Told in monthly installments interspersed with recipes, Like Water for Chocolate, is the story of the De la Garza family in the Mexican revolution and filled with magical realism of love and cooking. The narrator is the great-niece of Tita, and the novel's focus is the life of Tita, the family's youngest daughter.

My thoughts: I first read Like Water for Chocolate in high school and utterly adored it. Re-reading it fifteen years later, I still enjoyed it, but the magical realism of love's positive and negative effects lacked the dramatic resonance it held for me as a teenager. It is the tradition of Tita's family that the youngest daughter may not marry and must spend her life serving her mother. Tita is enraged, angry and in utter agony when she learns her fate will be to care for her mother rather than live with Pedro, the love of her life. Pedro decides the best course of action is to agree to Tita's mother's wishes and marry Tita's older sister so he can still be near her.

Part of the magic of this novel is its ability to make its actions seem real. Magical realism at its best is emotional, authentic and believable. As I try to describe it, it can sound farcical or contrived, but Esquivel infuses this novel with true emotion. It's deceptively simple, which is why I loved it in high school. It is an accessible novel with young adult crossover appeal, but as an adult re-reading it, I see the novel differently. I think of it as a whole more now; I see the stories of each member of the family rather than drowning in Tita's emotional plight.

Favorite passage: "From that night on she would love him forever. And now she had to give him up. It wasn't decent to desire your sister's future husband. She had to try to put him out of her mind somehow, so she could get to sleep. She started to eat the Christmas Roll Nacha had left our on her bureau, along with a glass of milk; this remedy had proven effective many times. Nacha, with all her experience, knew that for Tita there was no pain that wouldn't disappear if she ate a delicious Christmas Roll. But this time it didn't work. She felt no relief from the hollow sensation in her stomach."

The verdict: While Like Water for Chocolate lacked some of the emotional resonance I recall feeling when I read it in high school, it's still an excellent novel of magical realism. It's a novel that evokes the senses and ties each to emotion.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages
Publication date: September 6, 1992
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Like Water for Chocolate from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository, or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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  1. I had a similar experience re-reading Wuthering Heights. As a teen, that book was always in my hands. LOVED it. Then re-reading it as an adult I did still enjoy the book my adult self didn't catch the magic.

    1. Isn't it fascinating how different books impact us at different times?

  2. I read this one a few years ago and I think the way that you describe the lack of emotional resonance is exactly why this one fell flat for me. I still have it on the shelf hoping that next time I read it I'll like it better. Ha!

  3. I too read this in high school and loved it -- I wonder if it wouldn't feel as magical for me as well rereading it now.


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