When I reached the end of Esquivel’s short novel I found myself having to take a moment to think about if I actually liked it or not, which is not an experience I often have upon completing a book. There are two very unique points about ‘Like Water For Chocolate‘ which really sculpt the presentation of the storyline; its narrative stance, and its recipe book format. Both are intricately woven into the story’s events adding certain dynamics to how the novel can be perceived … and yet, I’m not sure whether they have any desired effect at all.
The story follows the secret love of Tita and Pedro, forbidden from marrying by Tita’s mother who executes her right to have her youngest daughter take care of her until she dies. Meanwhile, in a desperate bid to stay close to his beloved, Pedro agrees to wed Tita’s elder sister. Pedro’s heart-breaking decision strings together a series of unfortunate, humorous and unexplainable events which finally bring the two lovers together.
Narrative stance so rarely puts so much pressure on an unreliable narrator, but the poor undependable storyteller has a lot of his shoulders. He relates the tale of his great-aunt as though he’s heard it through a sequence of Chinese-whispers, becoming more and more embellished with each retelling. This narrative device, and this narrative device alone, allows for the reader to suspend their disbelief (or at least in my case it did). However, this does not always work to an advantage. After the first few chapters the magic-realism takes an overwhelmingly ridiculous turn, which is where the unreliable narrator comes in so influential. Once I remembered who the storyteller was, and in which context he is telling the tale, things didn’t seem as absurd as I first thought, because it occurred to me that mister narrator could be getting story wrong. I’m not certain as to whether Esquivel intended the aforementioned moments of magical incidence to be funny, but for the most part they did humor me.
With the art of food a central theme within the story, the plot-line is weaved into native Mexican recipes, impossible to follow but an extremely intriguing and unique way to allow the culture of the work to shine through, and if nothing else, the culture really does work some magic. Civil war Mexico is cleverly presented through the small-family drama. The ranch, and the capitalist rule of Mama Elena, along with the rebellion of her daughters creates somewhat of a mini Mexico of the period unfolding before the eyes. Admittedly, my knowledge of Mexican history isn’t exactly up-to-snuff, but from the limited understanding of the story’s backdrop, ‘Like Water for Chocolate‘ offers a brief snapshot into how tradition heavily influenced the decisions and caused all manner of rebellious actions. This is one of the few things I am certain I liked.
There are a few potholes to believability. Someone who had already read the novel posed the question as to why the protagonist would love someone after he did what he did. Pedro’s choices poses a question about what separates love from desire, but the narrative, with what was in my opinion a baffling conclusion, never really answers it. Often times the author just suddenly decides how the protagonists feel, without really presenting a reason why. A ‘because she does’ scenario which even the unreliable narrator can’t make sense of.
If nothing else, Esquivel has created a piece of fiction truly unlike anything you will ever read. Prose is erotically charged, often heart-breaking and sometimes uncomfortably blunt, but Esquivel has a gift for adding a sensual feel to the oddest of moments. It’s a tale trimmed with passion, sorrow, and strangely enough food to make you physically hungry. It’s a story for anyone whose ever longed for someone without knowing why, enjoys erotic humor, and passionate prose.