Recently I’ve begun to realise that one of the literary devices I love most is magic realism. For those who’ve never come across it before, or didn’t know they had, magic realism is a 20th Century style or genre where a novel’s story is mostly realistic but with magical elements that can sometimes feel out of place in the narrative. I think I became interested in this style of writing, from my favourite teenage author Fay Weldon. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil was dramatised at this point and was widely talked about in the media and at school – where any chance to see clips that would titillate were applauded. How innocent we were that, without the internet, we were reduced to TV dramas for our fix of nudity – now we can see six naked people being visually assessed in their pods at any time of day. Back in the 1990s we had to commit to storyline for a whole episode, just for a glimpse of side boob! I read all Fay Weldon’s back catalogue and became fascinated with the skilful way she mixed realistic settings with sudden supernatural, astrological or magical elements. There was an audacity to it that I loved. So, when I came to reading Like Water for Chocolate I was charmed straight away by the love story and the magical powers that Tita has, especially her ability to bake her emotions into her food.
Set in early 20th Century Mexico, we meet Tita, the youngest daughter of the family who is hopelessly in love with Pedro. Sadly, Mexican tradition dictates that older siblings marry to carry on the family name, make connections and ensure their financial future. Younger siblings are destined to be the caregiver in the family, remaining single and close to home to help their parents in their old age. Tita and Pedro are in love and Tita’s mother knows this, so what happens next seems unusually cruel. She leaves older sister Rosauro open to marriage and then schemes behind the scenes, as a result and feeling like he has no realistic chance with Tita, he marries Rosauro because then at least he will be able to stay close to his real love. It is their wedding day where we see the full structure of the novel unfold. Tita’s mother forces her to bake the wedding cake, but as she does Tita begins to cry and somehow her sadness leaches into the cake batter. As they serve the cake at the wedding, much to Tita’s surprise, the guests start to experience their own memories of lost loves. Soon the whole room is reminiscing and weeping. From the extraordinary event onwards the novel is split so that a recipe forms each chapter. We are always waiting to see what emotion will get baked or fried into each incredible Mexican recipe as Pedro and Tita circle each other, forever in unrequited love. Would they ever get a chance to be together?
I first read this novel when I was an impressionable twenty year old, still in love with the idea of romantic love. Now if I was asked to give advice to Tita, I’d probably say that life is way too short to spend it in such a torturous situation. Pack a bag and get a bus out of there. Build your own life. It’s not just the idea of her sister marrying Pedro, it’s watching the milestones of their life together. If Rosauro had children with him, Tita would be hurt all over again. Every day there would be a new reason to mourn what she could have had. Her reward for this sacrifice? Looking after a mother who’s becoming more infirm by the day knowing that she was the one who took away Tita’s chance of happiness and gave it to her sister. I remember reading and hoping that Pedro’s love for Tita would remain. I couldn’t bear the thought that Pedro might grow to love Rosauro over the years. I won’t ruin the ending for those who haven’t read this extraordinary book, but I will say that it’s one of the most unusual endings I have ever read. I have been known to recreate a recipe from a book, especially where recipes are an important part of the story. I’ve often done it for my book club, where we’ve eaten: chocolate cream pie while reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and honesty cake while reading Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters. Yet, I’ve never attempted one of Tita’s family recipes – perhaps because they seem so uniquely hers and enchanted by her particular brand of magic. This is a beautiful novel for those hopeless romantics or if you love to be immersed in the culture of the characters from old customs, to celebrations and their chosen foods for those occasions. This has been a book that has endured for me and still feels uniquely magical.
Meet The Author.
Laura Esquivel is the award-winning author of Like Water for Chocolate, which has sold over four and a half million copies around the world in 35 languages, The Law of Love, and most recently, Between Two Fires. She lives in Mexico City.