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.