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