Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

The full title of this novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel is Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies. I’d never heard the bit after the colon before, so when I looked it up in my library, I was confused. I thought perhaps some companion to the novel existed so readers could “cook along” with the characters. Published in 1989 and translated by Thomas & Carol Christensen, Esquivel’s novel has delighted and infuriated hundreds of thousands of readers.

like water for chocolate

Firstly, the author uses magical realism: feelings appear in food, chickens gets sucked up in a tornado of their own making, feeling too sexual causes spontaneous combustion, etc. I argue that those who dislike this literary tool have read books in which authors were unwieldy users. Esquivel uses magical realism frequently to heighten the emotions in a common plot: forbidden love.

Tita is a Mexican teenager, the youngest of three daughters. Her Mama Elena laughs when Pedro asks for Tita’s hand in marriage because everyone knows it’s tradition in their family for the youngest daughter to remain single to care for her mother until death. Tita was never close to Mama Elena, instead seeing their cook as her mother-figure. Then, the old cook passes away. Tita is assigned to take over in the kitchen because she’s so good at it. However, sometimes her feelings spill over into her food . . .

Esquivel uses magical realism to make you feel more deeply what Tita feels. Because Pedro knows Mama Elena will never waiver, he marries Tita’s sister Rosaura so he can be close to Tita. In Water for Chocolate, new family members move in; married children do not move out. Readers learn that Rosaura has a marriage sheet (basically an embroidered silk sheet with a hole in it in just the right place) and that Pedro is rarely intimate with her. He prays, claiming he is loyal to Tita but must make a child with his wife to please God. Therefore, I was convinced that his love was true to Tita. Tita is forced to make all the food for Pedro’s and Rosaura’s wedding, and it contains such a sadness that guests start feeling upset, and then throw up uncontrollably.

water
Rosaura on top, Tita and Rosaura’s baby on bottom. From the 1992 film.

There is a love triangle in the novel, but it isn’t frustrating. When Tita’s mother dies, she is courted by a doctor. The doctor is kind and cares for her when she becomes ill, so Tita considers marrying him. But there’s Pedro, always around, her first love and the man about whom she feels passionately. Do you choose kindness or passion? Does it matter that Pedro is already married?

Like Water for Chocolate is equal parts romance and humor. As time goes on,  Esquivel uses magical realism on Rosaura to show she is a hateful person. She becomes bloated, she can’t stop farting, and her breath is awful. One scene had me reading aloud to my husband and giggling:

At first Pedro didn’t find it odd that he could hear Rosaura breaking wind with her door closed. He began to notice the unpleasant noises when one lasted so long it seemed like it would never end. Pedro tried to concentrate on the book he was holding, thinking that drawn-out sound could not possibly be the product of his wife’s digestive problems. The floor was shaking, the light blinked off and on.

The lights flickering is where I lost it. The passage goes on further, conveying something unrealistic in order to make readers loathe Rosaura more for agreeing to marry her little sister’s true love. And really, I wanted to run away after this noisy passage.

Romantic, funny, Like Water for Chocolate is also sexy. But don’t worry! You never get any explicit acts or descriptions, but that doesn’t make the novel chaste. As Tita grinds spices by hand in the kitchen, Pedro wanders in and sees her. The narrator acknowledges Tita never wears a bra, and thus Pedro can see her exposed breasts. He never touches them, though; his passion comes through in his look, and “in a few moments’ time, Pedro had transformed Tita’s breasts from chaste to experienced flesh, without even touching them.” I’m not capturing the whole scene, but the build up to this moment is sexual, passionate, and never gratuitous.

Because I read Esquivel’s novel for book club, we discussed the ending. While the ending mirrored an earlier part in the book, many found it too magical. Or, maybe no one wanted to admit that the conclusion made them sad in a way. Others felt happy. It’s up for interpretation, even though what happens is not unclear. I truly loved Like Water for Chocolate and could not stop reading. It’s a fast read thanks to the clean prose, and if you cut out all the blank pages (there are several for reasons you will notice if you read the book), then it’s even shorter than it looks. Esquivel wrote a rollicking good time, equally funny, sexy, and whimsical.

*NOTE: If you live in the U.S. the film version is now on Netflix.

like water for chocolate movie
To be fair, I can’t remember if there is nudity in the film.
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30 comments

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed this as much as you did. Years ago, I taught Spanish (university level), and we would use this book and the film in our courses. It was always well-received, and I think you’ve hit on the important reasons why.

  2. I doubt this is available on Canadian Netflix, we have way less choices than you guys do, i’m quite bitter about it actually.

    I really like the sound of this book, plus the word ‘chocolate’ is in the title, which of course intrigues me.

  3. Sometimes I want to keep people who don’t understand or appreciate magical realism away from magical realism. I love the genre and always feel like it’s misunderstood by the general public. I haven’t read this one, but I really want to and your review is making want to break my library ban and check it out.

  4. This review fills me with such joy. I read this book years ago; my first positive interaction with an audiobook. It blew me away! And due to this, I was never able to write a real review. I just couldn’t articulate how moved I was by this book! This also started my love-affair with magical realism as a genre. To this day, The Night Circus is my favorite novel. It’s a brilliant use of magical realism.

    Have you read other magical realism novels? If so, any recommendations?

    • Some of these I haven’t read in ages, so I don’t remember how strongly I felt about them, but some books with magical realism are Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (HIGHLY recommended–it also has metafiction), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, Chocolat by Joanne Harris (also a movie that is very similar to the book), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo by Darrin Doyle. Doyle is on Twitter and offering review copies of his newest book. I tagged you on Twitter so you can see his Tweet.

      • I only know two of these books, so this is exciting! I read, and enjoyed Chocolat. I haven’t read the rest of the series, however… All of these have been added to my TBR! Woohoo! So many much magical realism! I don’t mind if you haven’t read these in ages, it’s more about digging into the genre more. The whole concept fascinates me.

        • Chocolat is part of a series? I looked it up on Goodreads, and it seems like there are many books in the series, but they’re not all identified clearly on that site. I did not know this!

  5. Yet another book I read ages ago and have forgotten much about! I’m beginning to feel like a lousy reader here… quick, write a post about a brand new book so I won’t feel bad, LOL! I do remember I liked it.

  6. I read this as a teenager and loved it, and reread it recently and was disappointed to discover that it no longer holds up for me personally. It’s not the magical realism so much, as I’ve enjoyed that in other books – I just wasn’t sold on the romance, and because the book is mostly about that I couldn’t get into it. Also, I really wanted more on the sister who joined the revolution! That was the most interesting aspect of the book for me and I loved her character, and I just wished that I could have much more of her. Basically, I understand that this book is good and well-written, it just wasn’t for me.

    • Yes! I wish there was a companion book totally about the revolutionary sister. I also wasn’t into the romance because they fall in love when the main character is….what…15? 16? I think for me, I enjoyed all the stuff that happened between the romance stuff. The magical realism, aside from the fiery end, really doesn’t happen IN the relationship/pining/romance.

  7. In March you commented on an Australian novel with aspects of magic realism that I’d reviewed “and I’d like to read Like Water for Chocolate, a Mexican novel that sounds fantastic but is also chalked up to telenovella drivel (I’m okay with that).” I’m glad it worked out. I have had trouble coming to terms with magic realism over the years but understand now that it works with Indigenous story telling but think that it is mostly just a fashionable gimmick in White writing. Love the cover (at the top) too, very Frida Kahlo.

  8. This sounds like fun! I’ve seen this book around a lot at book sales, but have never really known what it’s about. I think I’ll get it the next time I see it (I’ll probably never see it again now!).
    Who would ever think it’s a good idea to marry the sibling of the person you love? That would be torture for everyone involved!

    • I think it was quite popular, getting a second wave after the movie came out. The love stuff IS over the top, thus why Pedro marries Rosaura, but it didn’t hinder my enjoyment.

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