Anyone who thinks Wuthering Heights wasn’t romantic really needs to read Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies, one of those novels whose marketing far eclipses its content. It’s got a quirky subtitle, it promises food, magic, love and female empowerment; it’s short and easy to read, and is written by a Mexican woman, giving it that patina of worldly sophistication that every so often inspires a translated mega-hit in the United States. It’s easy to see how this novel from 1989 was such a smash, with a translation by Carol and Thomas Christensen and a movie both arriving in 1992.
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. I don’t know whether that’s ever happened to you, but I have to confess it’s happened to me, many times. Mama used to say it was because I was especially sensitive to onions, like my great-aunt, Tita.
Tita was so sensitive to onions, any time they were being chopped, they say she would just cry and cry; when she was still in my great-grandmother’s belly her sobs were so loud that even Nacha, the cook, who was half-deaf, could hear them easily. Once her wailing got so violent that it brought on an early labor. And before my great-grandmother could let out a word or even a whimper, 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.
This is quite an enticing opening, less magical realist, more folk tale embellished by a favorite aunt, and this crazy, congenial narration kept me turning the pages with some avidity even as it dawned on me that I hated Like Water for Chocolate. That’s worth a star by itself. So we’ll start with the plot of this, Laura Esquivel’s most notable contribution to Mexican literature.
In Tita’s family, there is a tradition in which the youngest daughter is required to forgo marriage and children, instead devoting her life to being her parents’ caretaker until they die. Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena and when she falls in love with a local boy her mother forbids the match. Pedro then decides the best strategy for securing his beloved is to take up Mama Elena’s offer of her eldest daughter Rosaura’s hand. He then moves into the house with them. A foolproof plan, surely. What follows are eleven chapters of ghastly family dysfunction that took me by surprise. I understood that Hispanic culture places a greater emphasis on family than any of their northern neighbours, so to see Esquivel make a complete mockery of it somewhat took me aback.
The only tradition Esquivel seems to value is the preparation of food, with each traditional recipe carefully embedded in the novel itself, yet she betrays and mocks it alongside everything else, for most of the dishes produce disgusting results as the food takes on the properties of Tita’s own suppressed emotions, causing mass vomiting at Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, summoning worms into the sausages and turning a regular meal into a destructive aphrodisiac – twice. I did not crave Mexican food during this read and was in fact somewhat queasy at the thought of it.
So Pedro sets out to have a wife and a woman on the side while Mama Elena spends most of her time arranging for Pedro and Tita to never be left alone together. Rosaura is trapped in an unhappy marriage but we’re not supposed to feel sorry for her and, to ensure our cooperation on this point, Esquivel makes her fat and gassy and she dies in the most humiliating way the author could devise. Middle sister Gertrudis gets infected by Tita’s accidental aphrodisiac, gets abducted by a rebel soldier and winds up working in a brothel but we are certainly not meant to feel sorry for her liberation.
The funniest thing about Like Water for Chocolate is the vaguely defined yet repeated claim that it is somehow a feminist text (probably because it is set during the Mexican Revolution and Tita and Gertrudis both rebel against tradition). I find this amusing when literally every time Tita seems ready to take her destiny into her own hands Pedro comes along with his suggestive eyes and gets her to throw her life away. Meanwhile the very traditions she rebels against are her mother’s. Mama Elena runs a female household, she scares off bandits all by herself and she says outright “I’ve never needed a man for anything; all by myself, I’ve done all right with my ranch and my daughters. Men aren’t that important in this life, Father” – she said emphatically (to the local priest, by the way). She’s a firebrand feminist and she runs a hellish household and makes her daughters miserable. When Rosaura and Pedro have a baby girl, it is Rosaura who decides to carry on the youngest daughter tradition even though she can’t have any more children – dooming the family line. Pedro doesn’t interfere or even seem to care because he wants to have bastard kids with Tita, but when Rosaura says no to that idea he quickly drops it. All of the men in this novel are incredibly weak, by the way, from Pedro, too craven to elope with the woman he desires, to the soldier and great womanizer Trevino, who is emasculated by Gertrudis and becomes only her watchdog, protecting her flanks, not letting her out of sight for a second, to Mama Elena’s late husband, who is carried off by a heart attack when he learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness. It is painful and it leads to a major problem with the narrative. This is meant to be a “traditional family,” with happiness granted only to the daughters who rebel against it but the family is matriarchal, creating cognitive dissonance all the way.
It is only the middle of the book, chapters May – July, that really escape the story’s general bizarreness. Tita escapes her dreadful situation at the apex of its tragedy and is taken in by the patient, reasonable, caring Dr. John Brown. He is everything the main cast is not: scientific, gentle and capable of respecting Tita’s choices. A love triangle develops: Tita was beginning to wonder if the feeling of peace and security that John gave her wasn’t true love, and not the agitation and anxiety she felt when she was with Pedro. A back and forth develops between lust and love, raw passion and tempered emotion. Will Tita become a wife or remain a mistress? The penultimate chapter leaves her decision a cliffhanger, cementing this for all time as a beach read, before the final installment engages in an incredibly lame time-skip bait-and-switch to wrap things up. And what an insane wrap-up it is, something I can only describe as “the Marquis de Sade for housewives.” Check it out below the SPOILER line!
Tita, it is revealed, has chosen to be a mistress, sneaking into closets with Pedro while keeping up appearances with the community and scrupulously avoiding pregnancy for twenty-two years. How fulfilling. The Wuthering Heights reference I made wasn’t entirely snark, as in both novels it falls to the youngest generation to correct the family faults and forge ahead to a good life. However, there is no redemption to go along with it in this case, and you could even say the older generations got exactly what they wanted. Tita follows Mama Elena’s instructions to never marry, while young Esperanza is only freed from tradition by her mother’s ignoble end. And there’s more.
At the wedding of Esperanza to John Brown’s son, Tita’s aphrodisiac strikes again, infecting all the guests except for John, who leaves without a partner. John should have found someone else when she refused him, but he never had. So the only rational character exits unaffected while everyone else grabs a partner and heads out for a massive orgy. Esquivel singles this out for applause, crowing that the uninhibited sexuality on display that day was some of the greatest creativity in the history of the human race. Meanwhile, Tita and Pedro are finally free to indulge their carnal appetites uninterrupted and it’s such an intense experience that it stops Pedro’s heart. Tita realizes she will never again experience such an inner fire and the narration completes its regression from an old crone spinning yarns to a seventeen year old girl’s erotic prose poem: Surely Pedro had died at the moment of ecstasy when he entered the luminous tunnel. She regretted not having done the same. Now it would never again be possible to see that light, because she could no longer feel anything. She would but wander through the shadows for eternity, alone, all alone. [Is she a vampire now? Seriously?] She would have to find some way, even if it was an artificial one, of striking a fire that would light the way back to her origin and to Pedro. The language gets vaguer from here but basically she masturbates to death and the ranch burns to the ground around her. Then Esquivel tries to invoke some cycle-of-life imagery with the ash left behind but what we really have here is the old sex-equals-death pathology, with Pedro and Tita dying of sheer satiation because that is passion for the ages, people, and Pedro was the superior choice to John Brown. It is deeply insane.
But that’s the whole book for you. The best reviews come from people whose comments boil down to “have you read this book? It’s CRAZY!” They were the ones who got maximum entertainment value from it. It’s like reading Richard Brautigan’s novels and I suspect Laura Esquivel is heading for the same quasi-literary plateau he’s on. The final joke goes back to the title: “Home Remedies,” it claims, when the only lasting remedy for this home is to burn it down with the over-exerted corpses of its owners inside. Now there’s a cure.