Tuesday, May 12, 2009

30. Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel

History: This is a popular novel published in 1989, originally published in Spanish. The phrase "like water for chocolate" comes from the Spanish como agua para chocolate. This phrase is a common expression in some Spanish-speaking countries and was the inspiration for Laura Esquivel's novel title (the name has a double meaning). In some Latin American countries, such as Mexico, hot chocolate is made not with milk, but with water instead. Chocolate will only melt to create hot chocolate when the water reaches boiling point. The saying 'like water for chocolate' alludes to this fact. It can be used as a metaphor for describing a state of passion or – sometimes – sexual arousal. It may also be used to refer to anger, such as being 'boiling mad'. Tita, the main character, actually uses the expression in the book when she says 'estoy como agua para chocolate' (I am like water for chocolate) meaning that she is boiling mad.
Plot: The book is divided into twelve chapters. Each section begins with a recipe of some sort, involving Mexican foods. The chapters outline the preparation of the dish and ties it to an event in the protagonist's life. Young Tita de la Garza, the novel's protagonist, is fifteen at the start of the events in the story, which take place in the era of the Mexican Revolution. She lives with her iron-fisted mother, Mama Elena, and her older sisters Gertrudis and Rosaura, on a ranch near the Mexico-US border. Tita's admirer, Pedro, comes to ask for her hand in marriage, but Mama Elena forbids it on the grounds of the De la Garza family tradition, which demands that the youngest daughter (in this case Tita) must remain unmarried and take care of her mother until death. Pedro then reluctantly marries Tita's older sister Rosaura instead, and a distraught Tita can hardly keep from being grieved, even though Pedro maintains that he only married Rosaura to be closer to Tita.
Tita has a love of the kitchen and a sharp connection with food of any sort, a skill her sisters lack. Tita unconsciously begins to use the power of food to draw Pedro away from Rosaura, with the rest of the family and hired help becoming pawns in the scheme. As the story unfolds, Pedro begins to fall under the developing spell of romance caused by Tita's kitchen skills. But side effects do result, as when Rosaura and Pedro are forced to leave for San Antonio, Texas, at the urging of Mama Elena, who is firmly against a relationship between Tita and Pedro, and Rosaura loses her son Roberto and is later made sterile after complications with the birth of daughter, Esperanza, who is the narrator of the story. Meanwhile, Tita's elder sister Gertrudis accidentally becomes affected by Tita's culinary delights and leaves the ranch naked with a revolutionary soldier (though she returns as the head of a revolutionary army). Upon learning the news of her nephew's death, whom she cared for herself, Tita blames her mother; Mama Elena responds by beating Tita furiously with a wooden spoon. Tita, not wanting to cope with her mother's controlling ways, secludes herself in a dovecote until the sympathetic Dr. John Brown reasons her to come down. The Doctor decides to take care of Tita at his home. Tita eventually enters into a relationship with Dr. Brown, even planning to marry him at one point, but she cannot shake her feelings for Pedro.
After the removal of all obstacles to the relationship between Tita and Pedro, the lovers finally share a night of bliss that is so heated and passionate that Pedro actually dies while making love to Tita. Upset that Pedro dies while she lives, leaving her alone in the world, Tita proceeds to consume candles whilst thinking of his face. The matches are sparked by the heat of his memory, creating a fire that engulfs them both, leading to their deaths in union and the total destruction of the ranch. The narrator of the story is the daughter of Esperanza. Esperanza is Tita's niece and Rosaura and Pedro's daughter, and Dr. Brown's son, Alex, will marry her at the conclusion of the story. The narrator then says that all that was found under the smoldering rubble of the ranch was Tita's cookbook, which contained all the recipes described in the preceding chapters.
Review: A tall-tale, fairy-tale, soap-opera romance, Mexican cookbook and home-remedy handbook all rolled into one. It’s about desire, love, lust, rebellion and, yes, death — which is only appropriate. We as readers are given a chance to see how the attitudes of the characters change over the course of time and how true love, once fully revealed, can never be held back even if the consequences of this true love are to be consumed by it. No, Tita does not find true, lasting love.
Not surprisingly, a recurring theme of both the book and film is food, which is used to represent all aspects of the vibrant, if troubled, Mexican culture. Food is object, metaphor, and a means of expressing a range of human emotions. Each page has someone eating or preparing a meal, and some of the more tasty chapters involve banquets. Both in the book and in the film, there's a real feeling that food is more than just something one eats. Food here is a celebration of the helix of life and death, of consuming and being consumed.
Opening Line: “Take care to chop the onion fine.”
Closing Line: “I don’t know why mine never turn out like hers, or why my tears flow so freely as I prepare them – perhaps I am as sensitive to onions as Tita, my great aunt, who will go on living as long as there is someone who cooks her recipes.”
Quotes: “The trouble with crying over an onion is that once the chopping gets you started and the tears begin to well up, the next thing you know you just can’t stop!”
“Mama Elena was merciless, killing with a single blow. But then again, not always. For Tita she had made an exception; she had been killing her a little at a time since she was a child, and she still hadn’t finished her off.”
Rating: Good

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