Like Water for Chocolate

“[…] Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage.

Since I signed up for several challenges I figured I had better begin reading books from the lists, and Like Water for Chocolate was perfect for when the power went out last night. The story is set in Mexico, probably in the earlier part of the century because the main character Tita is the narrator’s great-aunt.

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Tita is the youngest of three daughters and in love with a man named Pedro. Because of family tradition, however, she must remain single to care for her widowed mother; Mama Elena instead affiances Tita’s older sister Rosaura to Pedro. Tita’s sole refuge is her gift for cooking, into which she pours all of her emotions, leading to surprising results.

This is more of a story than a book; at times sensual, sorrowful, and humorous, it has that mythical style of hyperbole that pulls you in. Some people have likened it to Chocolat, but as I didn’t particularly care for that book it reminds me more of the movie Simply Irresistible. In all three cases a woman’s cooking has powerful effects on those who consume it. Only Like Water for Chocolate provides an emotional reason for this phenomenon, however, which makes it easy to connect to Tita.

The book is broken into “months,” each with its own recipe. These designations have absolutely no bearing on the timeline, however, which spans several years; for example, the events in the “September” section are set in January. To me it just seemed a convenient but misleading way to break the story into twelve parts. The recipes themselves are woven into the story, as food is obviously a matter of great importance to Tita. As a vegetarian I found most of them unappealing, but regular eaters might look forward to attempting them.

The most unappealing aspect, however, was the character of Mama Elena. I can’t recall off the top of my head a crueler mother in a book, and while growing up Tita was lucky to have the cook Nacha as a surrogate maternal figure. In addition to being selfish and inconsiderate, Mama Elena is verbally and physically abusive to Tita, and disowns her other daughter Gertrudis when she runs away. She is the type of woman who is capable of reducing others to a shell.

Luckily the story chooses to dwell on the positive. Another character, the doctor John, urges Tita to find what nurtures a spark inside of her and do whatever she can to keep it alive. The task is harder for those who have been hurt before, but not impossible.

I really enjoyed reading this, and can see why it made the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. This is my book for the Food category of the What’s in a Name? 3 Challenge. It’s also, sad to say, only my first book in translation for the year.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hmmm, you almost had me until you mentioned the evil mother. I’ll have to think about whether I want to deal with her or not before looking into this one. Thanks for reveiwing it in any case. I’d heard the title before, but never knew what it was about.

  2. Melinda–overall it’s definitely not a depressing story; personally I just had a hard time stomaching a fleshed-out version of a Disney step-mother. She was probably intended to come off as a little over-the-top.

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