Like Water for Chocolate, the first novel by Laura Esquivel starts with onions and a birth. Chopping onions, that bring about a wave of tears. This opening is apt because the entirety of the novel weaves together food and emotions.
For me, this is actually a re-reading. My copy is a stolen one, taken from a beach house my family stayed in one spring, probably after I’d finished all the mystery novels I’d brought down with me. I’m not sure why I grabbed it. Maybe I gravitated toward the cheery cover, or perhaps the moderate size. Still, I’m glad I did. Because once I started reading, I was fully sucked in.
Like Water for Chocolate was my first intro to magical realism, now one of my favorite storytelling tools. Tita de la Graza, our passionate protagonist, finds her home in the kitchen of her family’s large Mexican ranch. Nurtured by the stove from a young age, she connects with flavors and food in a way that most people only dream of. She also wins the heart of Pedro Muzquiz, a boy from their neighborhood and is heartbroken when she is told by her mother that they can never wed, due to the family tradition of the youngest daughter having to stay home and take care of her mother as she ages.
Pedro, unable to bear the idea of being separate from Tita, marries her sister Rosura instead, turning the ranch into a hotbed of love, lust, jealousy and heartache.
Tita’s haven is her kitchen and her artistry is in cooking, so the food she makes is imbued with the emotions she feels. Heartbroken, and her cake will make you sick. Lustful, and her meal causes one of her sisters to run away with a rebel.
No – the story is not particularly realistic. The emotions are sweeping and devastating in their fury, the love is steadfast and unchanging…and I’m fairly certain it’s impossible to make hundreds of partygoers sick just because you were sad when you made the cake batter.
The rich emotions give the novel a timeless, mythic feeling.
Nonetheless, Esquivel uses these grand, almost operatic turns of phrase to tug at the reader’s heart. For don’t we all know that feeling?
I had been meaning to reread this book for years (tellingly, unlike so many others, this one has never been donated or lent away). The setting and culture, particularly the food, are undeniably impactful on the story, but overall it’s a story about love, longing and the confounding ties and responsibilities that come with family: universal feelings, to be sure.