After starting my Booktrotting World Tour in Jamaica, I’m now taking a short hop across the Caribbean Sea to Mexico, for a tour of love and cooking on the US border with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
Tita de la Garza, a young girl living in rural Mexico with her mother and two sisters, longs to marry her lover Pedro, but is forbidden by an old family tradition that requires Tita to stay single and care for her mother through the latter’s old age.
This book was a strange one to read. For starters, it’s presented not as a conventional novel but as a cookbook; each chapter is dedicated to a particular recipe, starting off with the list of ingredients and using the preparation instructions as a backdrop against which the story is hung.
Then there’s the structure: as the subtitle explains, it’s a novel in monthly instalments – twelve chapters, January through to December – but where you’d expect that to mean the story takes place over a single year, it actually spans some two decades.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I love it when a novel does something different; and even though I didn’t find Like Water for Chocolate a particularly enthralling read, I came away really appreciating the way Laura Esquivel had chosen to tell her story. The recipe structure especially – it’s clear enough from the plot that Tita feels oppressed by her family’s obsolete tradition, but by writing the novel as a cookbook Esquivel underlines just how deep the entrapment goes, with Tita simply unable to separate the story of her life from the story of her domestic duties. The seismic events that fill each of the novel’s twelve chapters are not remembered by their importance so much as by the food Tita prepared for the occasion, whilst major societal events like the Mexican Revolution are largely only spoken of in passing, as if the Mexico outside Tita’s home is a whole other country to her.
But my favourite aspect of Like Water for Chocolate was the really strong sense it gave of rural Mexican life being one of stoicism. War, rape, sickness, death; Tita and the de la Garza family are subjected to some true horrors in just 250-odd pages, but Esquivel’s writing never allows them to wallow – the more painful the event, the fewer words Esquivel uses to relate it. To the characters in this novel, suffering seems more an inevitability than a tragedy, which I found to be a very sobering new perspective on life in a country more commonly known for tequila and mariachi.
Next up is a visit to civil war-torn Colombia, with The Armies by Evelio Rosero.