Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel is a novel told through recipes, a story mapped out in food. Esquival’s novel has won several awards and has been adapted into a movie by the same title.
The narrator’s great-aunt Tita is the youngest of three daughters born to Mama Elena, the tyrannical owner of De la Garza ranch. While still in her mother’s womb, she wept so violently–as her mother chopped onions–that she caused Mama Elena to begin early labor, and Tita slipped out in the middle of the kitchen table, amid the spices and fixings for noodle soup. This early encounter with food soon became a way of life, and Tita grew up to be a master chef. Each chapter of the novel begins with one of Tita’s recipes and her careful instructions for preparation.
In well-born Mexican families, tradition dictates that the youngest daughter not marry, but remain at home to care for her mother. Even though Tita has fallen in love, Mama Elena chooses not to make an exception, and instead, arranges for Tita’s older sister to marry Tita’s young man.
In order to punish Tita for her willfulness, Mama Elena forces her to bake the wedding cake. The bitter tears Tita weeps while stirring the batter provoke a remarkable reaction among the guests who eat the cake. It is then that it first becomes apparent that her culinary talents are unique.
This book, to me, was all over the place. But maybe I’m just not that fond of this type of storytelling? Esqivel frames her story around a woman who is telling the reader about her great Aunt Tita. Every chapter is pared with a recipe and the recipe features greatly in that chapter’s narrative. The characters and their actions are related in this narrative style, often with no one directly saying things to another (i.e. there isn’t dialogue with quotation marks). This style comes across as more fable/folk story being told, orally, rather than a story someone sat down and penned.
Which can be fine, but it’s not my cup of tea. Often, the narrator backtracks to relay a side story that touches on an earlier or even future event in a character’s life. I think this is how Esquival is establishing character development, but for me – most characters seem woefully underdeveloped. Most of the story is just a series of events and the characters reacting to them, but because everything is relayed in a narrative fashion, I, the reader, am not allowed much in the way of character depth. I only get surface information: Tita is sad because x,y,z happened. Rosaura is mad because Tita did x,y,z and so she does a,b,c to punish her. There’s very little in the way of actually getting to know these characters, and so the end result is I don’t really care too much.
Also, this is a magical realism story. There are events and moments in the story that are simply impossible in real life. To mention a few: the emotions Tita experiences when cooking food get imbued into the food and whoever eats it also experiences these emotions, Tita’s sister is taking a shower and it spontaneously burst into flames and she ends up getting swept up by a horse rider and they then have sex on said horse while it’s galloping, Tita cries and ocean of tears and they flood the house, etc. This stuff can be fine, but for me it was just so wildly out there that I often couldn’t separate the real from the unreal and it made me uncertain about what I was meant to be taking from the story. Everything taken with a pinch of salt, I guess.
Overall, it was just one crazy story and the most insane things happen, making it all very surreal and the characters do the most outlandish things that I can’t understand – like forbidding the first daughter to marry because she has to take care of her mother for the rest of her life. It just didn’t jive for me.
Literary Value: 3/5
There are moments in this story that are very beautiful and I can see Esquivel’s love of her home country pouring out on the page. There is a lot of Mexican culture imbued in this story, some things which I am not familiar with at all, so there was a bit of culture-shock for me. Also, I enjoyed her using the recipes as a framework for the story, and how it all came full circle was really lovely and I thought well executed.
However, for me there was just so much craziness that I didn’t really understand all of what I was reading. I think I would have been better off in a class reading this, where metaphors could be discussed and cultural influences could be brought to light so that Esquival’s choices could make more sense for me. As a layperson, with not too much knowledge of Mexican culture, especially folklore, it was difficult for me to really dissect what the story relates.
I wish I understood it better, but because most of the events really went over my head, I had a hard time connecting with this book. Otherwise, I think the writing is fine and the way the story is structured makes sense. The lack of character development is one of the bigger downsides, and the fact that the overall plot seems quite aimless for most of the book.
Entertainment Factor: 3/5
Overall, this book wasn’t boring – there was so much craziness going on! I already mentioned the horse sex-scene (what a sentence to write!), and there are plenty of other things, like Tita’s unhappiness imbued into food which then makes an entire wedding party vomit profusely everywhere. Or the fact that there’s a revolution going on in the background of the story and yet it’s only mentioned in passing every once in a while, until Tita’s sister LITERALLY becomes the general of the revolution and has a whole army under her command. What?!
So, needless to say, I was entertained. I only am marking this book down some because a lot of the time, I was also very confused by the events in the book and didn’t know how to feel about them. I still don’t, to be honest. And the decisions these characters make is so bizarre. The whole catalyst of the story is the fact that Tita wants to marry Pedro, but because of some weird family tradition where, since she’s the first-born child, she has to take care of her mama for the rest of her life(!) and so her mama refuses the marriage but offers Tita’s sister instead! And Pedro, in an attempt to be near Tita, agrees! Like, what?! How does that logic make sense? And it only gets stranger from there.
Cover Art: 3/5
I think the art matches the style of the book really well. I like the illustration and I think it fits, especially in that it shows food preparation. This could easily be a cookbook cover, which is perfect for this novel. The colors and everything make it seem a little dated to me, though. I’m not the biggest fan of weird squiggly cursive font for the title and author. But I think the playful tilting of the image and the script hint a bit at the zaniness of the story, so it makes a bit of sense. Overall, the cover is fine, but it’s not something that would draw me in, or make me want to pick up the book, necessarily.
Overall Rating: 2.75/5 Chilies 🌶️🌶️
This book was certainly unique to other books I’ve read. I don’t think I’ve every read anything quite like this and I enjoyed that it uses food to tell a story. I’m a big fan of food, so I liked seeing a story relayed through food preparation. It certainly made me hungry while reading!
Mostly, though, the magical realism was a bit to zany for me. Everything is so outlandish and I had no idea what was going on half the time. Also, the character development is a bit lacking for me. I never found myself attached to any of the characters, even though I could sympathize every now and them. But they also make such strange choices, it made it hard for me to relate to them.
This story is very much like an oral folktale. The food is a vehicle to bind together several events in the life of a family, and not too much should be taken literally or seriously. While it was an entertaining story, the plot was just too aimless and the characters too distant for me to really connect with the story overall.
Thoughts & Thanks
Thank you so much for reading my review! I hope I’ve helped aid you in your decision to read this book. If you have read it or if you’re thinking about reading it, let me know what you thought in the comments! And as always, happy reading!