Swift as Desire by Laura Esquivel

Swift as Desire is a 2001 novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Though her work is always translated, no one is credited to this particular work. If Esquivel’s name sounds familiar, she is the author of the best-selling Like Water for Chocolate, which I loved and found hilarious.

Not nearly as funny, Swift as Desire is more philosophical. Júbilo was born with a smile on his face. Though his Spanish mother and Mayan grandmother argue incessantly because the grandmother is angry her son married a non-Mayan, Júbilo creates peace in the family by serving as a sly translator. Grandma only speaks Mayan, and his mother speaks Spanish; however, grandma teaches little Júbilo her language so he won’t forget his heritage. While grandma and daughter-in-law may say cruel things to each other, Júbilo gives each woman what she needs to hear, a skill he hones as a little boy that serves him well when he becomes a telegraph operator in adulthood.

At age fifteen Júbilo meets thirteen-year-old Lucha from a well-to-do family. Engaging in a slow, chaste relationship for seven years, the couple decide to get married. Passionate sexual creatures, Júbilo and Lucha communicate their love physically and frequently. Author Laura Esquivel speaks frankly about sexual bodies, but never gratuitously; this is not erotica. Esquivel uses magical realism to tune Júbilo into frequencies that help him communicate verbally and with his body when he’s with his wife.

Yet, money problems plague the young couple. Used to buying everything new when she wants it, Lucha must adapt to Júbilo’s mentality that things can possess you and only love matters. It’s quite saccharin, but not something of which I disliked being reminded. Equivel’s storytelling has a larger point than the plot or to entertain readers. For example, the Mayan grandmother abhors technology because “The danger she saw was that technological advances served no purpose if they were not accompanied by an equivalent spiritual development.” Júbilo’s efforts to use Morse code at the telegraph office to deliver what the messenger should send is evidence that he takes her concerns to heart.

The novel has two settings: the late 1930s and early 1940s when Júbilo was newly married, and circa 1995 when he is an old man on his death bed. His beloved Lucha has not talked to him in decades, but readers don’t know why. Their daughter, Lluvia, narrates the 1995 chapters, and the rest are from an omniscient narrator. Much like The Girl [Insert Something Generic] books that were popular in recent years, readers slowly learn what happened to Júbilo and Lucha to make this endlessly passionate and romantic couple stop speaking, which seems impossible given Júbilo’s history with communication, and brings us to the present conundrum. It works well, as Esquivel keeps up the pace to create suspense but not prolong the mystery.

When the timelines converge and readers learn why Lucha stopped speaking to her husband, the book fell flat. The ending failed to gave readers the payoff we were waiting for, instead delivering a predictable bed-side hand-holding “I love you.” This book could have spanned much longer, especially how this couple continued to live together without speaking until their youngest child got married — something grand like Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros.

And yet the writing is beautiful and feels like an oral story, of which I never tired. Take for instance the story of how Júbilo and Lucha chose the name Lluvia, which means rain, for their daughter:

The rain represented the resurrection of water, droplets that had evaporated from the earth to take on a new form in heaven, and then return to earth once more. The sound of the rain falling and the thought of the child in Lucha’s womb were for Júbilo like the best song of life ever.

Sure, there is a cliche villain and Swift as Desire is overly sweet at times, but the fun of Laura Esquivel’s books is in how she tells them, not so much the plot. Readers may call her work telenovelas, but I find that it sits in the verbal storytelling tradition beautifully.

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17 comments

  1. I hadn’t realised Indigenous culture had persisted in Mexico into the C20th. Are there still Mayan communities today? Remember (well I remember) the 1960s idea that we would all be ‘coffee coloured’ in a few generations.

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    • According to one section on Wikipedia:

      “It is estimated that six million Maya were living in [Mesoamerica] at the start of the 21st century. Guatemala, Southern Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula, Belize, El Salvador and Western Honduras have managed to maintain numerous remnants of their ancient cultural heritage.”

      I’m so glad that read this, as it means the indigenous people were not totally wiped out. The problem between Jubilo’s mother and grandmother is not only culture clash (the grandmother thinks the mother is a member of the foreigners/colonizers), but the idea that the Mayans are being decreased through Spanish and Mexican people having children and reducing the population of indigenous people that way.

      I also heard in the late 1990s that we would all be some shade of brown in no time, and how long it would be until white people were the minority in the United States.

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  2. I really like the idea of exploring intergenerational intercultural conflict, but I’m not so sure about the romance – I found Esquivel a bit saccharine in Like Water for Chocolate, so if that’s an issue here then I would probably be reluctant to pick this up. I enjoyed your review, though!

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    • I think the romance in Swift as Desire is actually “worse” than in Like Water for Chocolate, so I don’t think it would be enjoyable for you to read. The focus on Spanish vs. Mayan only exists early in the book. I was hoping that Jubilo’s family would stick around and give readers more opportunity for him to translate between the mother’s and mother-in-law’s languages to see what ensues.

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      • I remember that when I read Like Water for Chocolate, I wanted much more about the sister who ran off to join the revolution, and much less about the central romance. Sounds like this would be a similar experience. I think it’s just the wrong genre for me.

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        • YES! I absolutely wanted to follow the revolutionary sister! I loved the way the men under her command treated her, and she was so in charge. I definitely agree, based on the years I’ve been following your blog, that it’s the wrong genre for you.

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  3. I love the idea of jumping between two distinct time periods in a character’s life. This sounds really interesting, but I’m always wary of something saccharin…although I guess depending on mindset or your current life moment, sometimes it hits the right notes too? I read Like Water for Chocolate for a class, although I can’t remember which one now, and I don’t remember much about the book itself either. I find it really odd that a translator wasn’t credited here! I kind of can’t believe it. So much work to not even get your name on it…

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    • I’m not sure why the translator wasn’t credited on this work, as there is one on all of her novels. I’ve Googled around to see if I could figure it out with no results.

      In what class did you read Like Water for Chocolate? I ask because I’m interested in the context in which it was discussed.

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      • I’m racking my brain and I really can’t remember — I only associate it with that setting but I can’t remember writing about or discussing it. I had a Latin American Lit class and it would make sense if that was one, that would be my best guess.

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        • I know that when I was in school I was surprised to find professors who weren’t choosing canonical lit, but instead lit that said something about a time or place or influenced the reading public a great deal. For instance, in British Lit we read books like The Remains of the Day, A Clockwork Orange, and then Bridget Jones’s Diary for what her character meant during a specific time and place. We also read Trainspotting, which started me on a journey!

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  4. I’ve never read any Laura Esquivel, nor seen the movie Like Water For Chocolate. Magical realism is a genre I struggle with – sometimes I like them, other times I just can’t. For instance, I couldn’t get into Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who a lot of readers really really love, and so he’s kind of soured that particular genre for me.
    This title sounds interesting however, and I’ve long had Like Water For Chocolate on my TBR.

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    • I think Gabriel Garcia Marquez is so famous for magical realism that if you’re not into, he’s soured it for everyone. The way Esquivel does it is charming. The point of magical realism is that the magic is a moment in the story, or a small element, and everything else is super, super normal. I think she does it well in Like Water for Chocolate, and it’s a very speedy read — truly novella length.

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