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Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Like Water for Chocolate

A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies

By Laura Esquirrel
· Paperback: 256 pages
· Publisher: Anchor (October 1, 1995)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 038542017X
· ISBN-13: 978-0385420174

I first became aware of Like Water for Chocolate when the movie became a selection on my cable company’s free movie menu. The description of the movie seemed interesting and I watched it, even though it was Spanish with English subtitles.

Like Water for Chocolate takes place on a large ranch during the Mexican Revolution (think Pancho Villa) and concerns the life of Tita De La Garza, the youngest daughter of the clan. Due to the shock of hearing that her husband has died, Mama Elena (the matriarch of the De La Garza family) gives birth to Tita prematurely. However, Mama Elena is unable to breastfeed Tita and so she falls under the care of Nacha, the ranch cook, who nourishes her with teas and broths in lieu of milk, and teaches her the lessons of life in a way only the kitchen can.

The fact that Mama Elena is unable to care for her daughter is ironic in that as the youngest daughter, Tita is bound by family tradition to never marry or have children in order for her to take care of her mother until the day Mama Elena dies. Mama Elena firmly believes in her family’s traditions and takes a special delight in ensuring that both recipes and the rules of proper society are followed to the letter. She rules her family with an iron fist and frequently abuses her disobedient daughter both verbally and physically.
When Pedro comes to ask for Tita’s hand in marriage, Mama Elena refuses citing the harsh family tradition. In order to remain close to Tita, Pedro decides to marry Tita’s older sister Rosaura instead. Forbidden from being near the man that she loves, Tita expresses her desires and pleases him in the only way that she can…through her recipes.

The story takes on an almost surreal quality as Tita’s thoughts and emotions while preparing meals seem to imbue the food with magic that has a profound effect on the hearts and minds of those who consume her dishes. In one instance, Tita is forced to prepare all the food for her sister’s wedding banquet. Mama Elena tells her that she must do this and show no emotion,” not one tear.” However the wise and sympathetic Nacha allows her to cry, knowing that Tita must release her pain over her lost love. Unfortunately, Tita’s tears fall into the cake batter and when the guests take their first bite of the cake they become overwhelmed by the memories and heartaches of their own lost loves. In addition, they also become violently ill leading Mama Elena to believe that Tita put an emetic in the cake to purposefully make everyone sick out of spite. Mama Elena beats Tita so badly that she has to stay in bed for a week to recover.

In another incidence, Pedro gives Tita a bouquet of roses the petals of which she uses to make a sauce for roasted quail. Tita’s passion and desire for Pedro pours into the sauce and when it is consumed by her eldest sister Gertrudis she becomes enflamed with passion. So much so that when she attempts to cool her passions in the outdoor shower the water evaporates before it touches her skin, and the wooden shower itself burst into flames. Ultimately, Gertrudis runs naked from the shower and is swept away by a revolutionary drawn by the powerful scent of roses emanating from her.

Throughout the story Mama Elena does everything that she can to keep Tita and Pedro apart. Similar to her own birth, Tita becomes the primary caregiver for her sister’s son, Roberto, after her sister is unable to care for him to due to a difficult birth and Rosaura’s inability to breastfeed. Sensing that Roberto is drawing Pedro and Tita closer, Mama Elena sends Pedro, Rosaura and Roberto away to live with distant relatives. Unfortunately, Roberto dies and Tita blames Mama Elena.

Tita becomes even more rebellious and locks herself away in the dovecote and refuses to come down or even speak. Mama Elena, believing her daughter has gone insane, arranges for a doctor to come to the ranch and take Tita to a mental hospital. The doctor, John Brown, takes Tita to his own home instead where he allows Tita to heal in her own time and in her own way. During her recovery, Tita is visited by the spirit of Dr. Brown’s grandmother, Kikapu, a wise Indian herbalist, who offers her a delicious tea and establishes non-verbal communication with her. It is here that Tita gets her first taste of freedom and finally gets the opportunity to decide for herself what she wants to do with her own life.

Dr. Brown falls in love with Tita and then she must decide if she loves him enough to marry him, if her heart still belongs to Pedro, or if her destiny is to deny herself love all together in order to take care of her mother. Along the way the spirit of both Nacha and Kikapu is there to guide and support her.

As the title states, Like Water for Chocolate includes recipes, romances, and remedies. Each chapter begins with a recipe as Tita expertly prepares the dish in question. Some of the recipes explore the traditions behind the meals. In addition, the healing power of soups, teas, and even barks are discussed and even a little bit of science and medicine is included. At only 256 pages, Like Water for Chocolate is a quick read and can be completed in only a few hours, however it is a story that stays with you long after the last page is read, the book is closed, and returned to the shelf.

Carolina Dean

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