Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua para Chocolat)
Author: Laura Esquivel
Full Title: Like Water for Chocolate: A novel in monthly installments with recipes, romances and home remedies.
Original Title: Como Agua para Chocolat
Original Language: Spanish
Translators: Carol and Thomas Christensen
Original Publication: 1989
Genre: Fiction, Romance, Magical Realism
#195 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
I like this book so well that I have re-read it several times. It’s a light, short read and a wonderful Spanish love story which reads like a classic fairy tale with all of the expected heroes, villians, and beautiful girls. The translation from the Spanish is pitch-perfect, and far more accessible than, for example, Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
Tita de la Garza is the youngest of three daughters living on their tyrant mother’s farm in Mexico, during the time of the Mexican Revolution. Tita falls in love at first sight with a farm hand, Pedro, and Pedro asks for her hand in marriage. Mama Elena refuses, citing the family tradition that the youngest daughter must never marry, but will stay at home and care for her mother until she dies. Unfortunately, Mama Elena shows no signs of being on her way out any time soon! Devastated, Pedro marries Tita’s sister Rosaura in an effort to be closer to her, his true love. Rosaura is fat, ugly, smelly, and undesirable, and Tita has little trouble believing Pedro’s assertions that he loves only her, in spite of the fact that they cannot spend any time together – Mama Elena watches like a hawk and rules with an iron fist.
The novel is split into 12 divisions for months of the year, and each chapter starts with a Mexican recipe Tita is preparing, and centers around how the dish affects that portion of the story. Tita grew up in the kitchen under the tutelage of her beloved friend (and cook for the ranch,) Nacha, and it is Tita who takes over the preparing of all of the farm’s food as she grows up. She has been taught that food never turns out correctly if you’re not in the right mood – that is, food absorbs the emotions of the chef, and it not only affects the taste, but also those who eat it. Tita witnesses this firsthand when Mama Elena orders her to prepare the feast for her sister’s wedding to Pedro, and she cries the entire time; her tears mixing in with the ingredients. When the guests eat her meal, they are all overcome with despair at their own lost loves and everyone weeps uncontrollably, ruining Rosaura’s wedding reception.
Realizing that the only way she can show her love for Pedro without Mama Elena knowing is through the food she prepares for him, Tita prepares ever more elegant and delicious dishes, knowing that he will taste the love she puts into them. The food she prepares for Rosaura, on the other hand, is infused with Tita’s jealousy and bitterness, and has permanently bloated Rosaura and made her ill. On one evening after a particularly sumptuous meal infused with Tita’s desire for Pedro, eldest sister Gertrudis becomes overcome with an unquenchable lust and runs away with a Mexican Revolutionary, furiously making love with him on horseback as they ride away. Mama Elena is furious, but Tita begins to realize that if Gertrudis can defy Mama Elena, perhaps she can too. I can’t give any more away without ruining the story, but it is definitely worth the read.
Fun Fact: The title is apparently a common expression in Spain, and a metaphor for describing intense feelings. When you make hot chocolate, the chocolate does not melt until the water reaches the boiling point. Hence, saying “estoy como agua para chocolat” (I am like water for chocolate), as Tita does in the story, one could mean that they are boiling mad, or boiling with desire. Interestingly, before I looked it up, I thought that the metaphor was an admonishment fitting with the general theme of the story – accepting anything else in place of your true love would be like accepting water in place of chocolate. That is to say, grossly inadequate. I rather like my interpretation better.
Bother if: You’re a fan of romance, supernatural elements, fairy tales, or even if you are a foodie! The descriptions of the food she prepares are amazing. The characters are great, and you love Pedro and hate Mama Elena right along with Tita. I very much enjoyed it.
Don’t bother if: Even if you don’t read romance as a rule, this is a wonderful story and worth making an exception for. However, it is definitely a romance/young love thwarted story, and the thematic elements are of the “suspend your disbelief” variety. While it is not graphic by any means, the story also contains sex and mild violence.