Sparked by Words

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel immersed me into a life I would never had imagined and yet convinced me I was standing at the edge of Tita De La Garza’s world, watching as her story unfolded. Tita is a the youngest daughter in a Mexican family whose tradition demands that she will serve her mother her entire life, never marrying and forgoing any life for herself. You may scoff at such an antiquated idea but if you’ve been forced to submission by a dominating parent, as I was, you know it is possible. Yet Tita doesn’t lose herself completely. She is a talented, creative, passionate woman who falls so deeply in love with a man that it informs her entire life even as it consumes her.

Born in the ranch kitchen amidst a flood of her mother’s tears, Tita is bound to her family’s traditions. Each chapter begins with an elaborate recipe, one that Tita as a master cook prepares for her family and guests. Each recipe represents the richness of Mexican life as well as Tita’s inner spirit, flavoring the food she prepares with native spices and her emotional mien at the time. The story is cast against the background of the Mexican revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. One of Tita’s sisters, after eating one of her meals, runs off to join a zealous young revolutionary, eventually becoming the independent woman Tita could not.

Imagine these clichés made sensuous with Esquivel’s masterful use of magic realism – Crying a river of tears. Tita cries so much over the impending wedding of her sister to her own beloved, Pedro, arranged because her mother will not let Tita marry, that the wedding cake she’s baked is poisoned by her bitterness, making the guests ill.

A life unraveled. Tita tries to transfer her love for Pedro into the practical creation of a crocheted bedspread. Being driven away from her mother’s home at last by a well-intentioned doctor, Tita’s trousseau bedspread unrolls behind the cart in a mile long spill of lost dreams and denied aspirations.

Nursing one’s wounds. Tita despairs of ever marrying her true love and bearing children, but she claims limited victory by nursing a newborn infant, the one born to Pedro and her sister, who has no milk. (“How can that possibly happen?” science demands, and magical realism responds, “It’s a story, relax and enjoy.”)

Haunted by the ghosts of one’s past. Tita, sorrowful after her mother’s death, is haunted throughout the rest of the book by her mother’s angry ghost who continues to torment her. No matter how Tita tries to excise herself from Mama Elena, the ghost haunts Tita and the rest of the family, reminding everyone of their obligations and failures. Eventually, Tita discovers one of her mother’s ghosts, a past history that proves she was not always chaste and noble.

Love is like a fire in one’s belly. Tita’s love and desire for self-realization collide with the reality of a ruthless, unjust world, just as the revolution brings violence to the country in its quest for freedom from political and social repression. So much so that Tita, given a recipe for making matches, finally has the means to declare her personal independence. When she and Pedro meet one last time, the one free of her brutal mother, the other free of the wife he never loved, she eats matches and lights her home on fire with her passion, burning it to the ground. The only survivor is the recipe book.

The title, Like Water for Chocolate, offers many interpretations of meaning. The one I most prefer is that true love cannot be replaced by a thin imitation. Though John proposes marriage to Tita, Pedro is the man she truly loves, and just as water is a bland substitute for chocolate, John cannot take his place. The story is suffused with sexual energy, exotic descriptions of food, the conflict between society’s expectations and the liberty promised by revolution.

My favorite line from the book is spoken by Dr. John Brown, the man who brings Tita to his home so she can recover from the catatonic state brought about by her mother’s relentless cruelty. “My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by themselves.” It’s the incentive that ultimately allows Tita to experience sexual fulfillment with Pedro but also her freedom from the constraints of strangling traditions.

Sympathetic to Tita’s predicament, I was mesmerized by Esquivel’s ability to portray so many characters with fully dimensional personalities, showing them as flawed and therefore believable as they were noble. The plot is never predictable, the outcome fulfilling though unconventional. Each of us has the potential to endure a personal revolution by confronting our demons and overcoming our deficiencies. Tita reminds me of all I have yet to achieve.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for L:

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Lord of the Rings (entire trilogy) by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite L fiction books.

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Knopf, Doubleday Publishing Group

 

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Comments on: "L is for Like Water for Chocolate" (52)

  1. Really enjoyed this Sharon – you made it sound like exactly something I would want to read!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Suzie. The book was a topic of conversation for several years after its publication in 1989. Fortunately it isn’t a dated reading style as Esquivel’s writing is excellent and the plot is unpredictable. It’s also relatively short, less than 250 pages, so it won’t demand a month of your attention. Let me know what you think.

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  2. I am depressed to think anyone would have to live that sort of life. I thank goodness for my upbringing and family’s love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A book like this can make you appreciative for what you have. The circumstances are so unfair for Tita. I think I may not have written the best review, because I didn’t make the case strong enough for connecting the Mexican Revolution with Tita’s life. The repressed peasants have no say or control over their lives, and are nearly enslaved by the rich landowners who gain enormously from their hard work. Tita is in much the same position with her mother and there never is any reconciliation between them. That might be the saddest part – that Mama Elena never apologizes, and Tita never understands or forgives her. Eventually the peasants become free as does Tita but at horrific cost of so many lives lost in the battle. It is the children who benefit. The story is told from the point of view of Tita’s niece who finds the recipe book. (A little more information that I probably should have included in the original review.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Marvelous series, Sharon. Looking forward to M. Smiles…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review that makes me hungry for love and sex . . . unfortunately at my age most of the matches are burnt out or soaked in bodily fluids. Alas.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, I did enjoy Like Water for Chocolate–so much that I read it in English and in Spanish (Como Agua Para Chocolate!). (I understood the English version much better.) And Little Women is one of my favorites, too.

    Recently, though, I read a short epistolary novel called Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole that stole my heart. It tells two connected stories–one set in World War I and one in World War II–through a series of letters. One is a love story, and the other is a mother-daughter story. Of course, I picked it up because most of the action takes place in Scotland, and I’m a sucker for anything Scottish. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ilene, I’m envious you were able to read Chocolate in Spanish. Decades ago I read a fair share of books in French but I no longer have the facility to do so. Thanks for your recommendation – I’ve added it to my list. I like the idea of an epistolary novel.

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  6. Sharon, an excellent review and I love the sense of fusion of her despair and desperate life with that of cooking all set in the heat of Mexico. The sexual energy is sparkling from your review…this sounds an epic book and you have me hooked. One for my tbr list. Beautiful quote of:

    “My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by themselves.”

    My most recent favourite L book is Local Girl Missing – it’s superb! Full of suspense, hint of the supernatural, characters who are not everything they seem.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Tina Bayer said:

    Ah, my friend, I think you have found your calling…excellent book review…thank you so much…if I ever make the time, I am sure to enjoy this read.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. thanks for reminding me of this lovely book – well done, Sharon!

    it was made into a movie too, no?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s certainly a very dramatic storyline. I know the ending is meant to be symbolic, but I couldn’t read about it without remembering my grandmother shaking her finger and telling my brother and I not to play with matches.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Funny what strange things trigger personal memories, right? I’ve more than once been caught laughing because (three words in a row with the “au” combo, which always confuse my fingers – ugh!) of something I took literally when it was meant figuratively or because I read an alternate, usually inappropriate, meaning into something everyone else took at face value. But the fire was definitely inside Tita and she finally found it.

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  10. What a fascinating story, and you made a point I’ve observed before. Cliches can actually be effective if we show the phrase rather than saying it (bearing in mind, of course, that execution is everything).

    As far as favorite L’s–mine are LOTR, although Lord of the Flies is not to be overlooked, and I have fond childhood memories of Little Women. And to your list I’d add The Last of the Mohicans. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I started to write this article, I noticed how the book is so full of ideas often expressed in cliches, and it struck me as a story that turned them inside out to be original. Esquivel is a masterful writer, though I’ve only read one other of her books, The Law of Love.

      When I first started to compile my list of favorite books, I knew I would only include those that had significant influence on me as a person or a writer. Many books I’ve also read aren’t on the lists at the bottom of each letter’s focus book. The big conundrum for me was whether or not to include children’s books, and I decided to list only those that shaped me to want to become a writer. I was a reader as a kid, losing myself in book after book, nearly all of them loved, but most aren’t given status here.

      Liked by 2 people

    • That’s interesting, Cathleen, the two Lord books being so very high on your list, as the concept of “lord,” what is and who is, lends much to each story. No way was I going to take on The Lord of the Rings, as I’d still be trying to fit a comprehensive review into less than a thousand words. (Fail, fail, fail again) They were a phenomena that has not seen its match, not even in Harry Potter (IMHO.) Lord of the Flies left me reeling from reading about the world – justice, fairness, kindness, brotherhood, survival, civilization – destroyed by children, children, and it was a book I nearly wrote about for L.

      Thank you for mentioning The Last of the Mohicans, a seminal book in American writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi, Sharon. I read this book many years ago and did happen to catch the movie. I remember it being very popular at the time. I’m a big fan of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisi hobbs Series and there are two that begin with L. Leaving Everything Most Loved and A Lesson in Secrets. The series should be read in sequence from the first one Maisie Dobbs as it goes from WWI England into WWII.I think you’d enjoy it and Winspear’s blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I see you have a few YA novels on your list. My favorite L books are the ones in The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. People make the mistake of thinking their sugary sweet (maybe because of the beautiful illustrations by Garth Williams. The books are so bittersweet and I get a thrill every time Laura meets her future husband briefly a few books before they court and marry. Knowing she stopped writing the last book in the series when her husband died makes everything seem so much more poignant.

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    • Adrienne, thanks for mentioning The Little House series. I’d forgotten about them, and didn’t read them until I was an adult, teaching elementary art. I read two of the books because so many of the students loved them, and found them charming. Wilder had a great memory and a good sense of story. I didn’t know about her husband’s death interrupting her final book – that kind of event would shatter me.

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  13. Bought this book about 2 years back but haven’t read it yet. Now I probably will, soon! Thanks for the review! 🙂

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