Laetitia Hosie, Lower Sixth pupil at Westminster School (London)
Como agua para chocolate, the 1989 novel by Mexican author Laura Esquivel, tells the story of Tita, the youngest daughter of the De La Garza family, who is forced by tradition to remain single in order to look after her mother, whilst her lover Pedro marries her older sister, Rosaura. But what makes this take on the classic topos of forbidden love so unique? Why has it sold close to a million copies in Hispanic countries and been translated into numerous languages? It would seem that such a familiar plot and recognisable themes might make for something predictable, tedious and unsuccessful, yet Como agua para chocolate was the number one bestseller in Mexico for more than two years.
What seems to distinguish Como agua para chocolate from other romance novels is the sense of warmth and homeliness running through the entirety of the book. The plot revolves around the concepts of food and cooking; each chapter begins with a recipe for a certain Mexican dish. Furthermore, the kitchen plays a significant role in acting as a kind of safe space for Tita, and the meals she cooks affect the events of the novel. Indeed, her feelings when she cooks seem to magically transfer to the people who consume the food she cooks; for example, those who eat the pastel chabela she cries into whilst beating the eggs are overcome with nostalgia and sadness. This sense of magic surrounding the food in the novel quite literally brings the kitchen to life, adding an intimate and cosy quality to the novel. Similarly, the mouth-watering descriptions of dishes are vivid enough for the reader not only to visualise them but to imagine the smells and textures and temperatures. Food as a whole, in the context of cooking, acts as a bridge between the characters in the novel and the reader. One cannot help but feel somewhat connected or relate in a way; good food is something universally appreciated.
The presence of magic in a broader sense also sets this novel apart from others of its genre – whilst it is certainly not an entirely realistic work, it is not completely abstract either. There are short moments of fantasy, which interlink in a very subtle way with the moments of reality; in this way, these moments of magic realism seem to occur naturally in way that does not startle the reader. Although it might seem as though magic is used to resolve issues in the plot line (for example, one of the characters happens to die of a magically-induced illness at a very convenient moment), it adds a dimension to the story which the inner child in every reader probably appreciates, like the significant presence of food.
The novel is predictable in certain places, and, as a reader, one might feel frustrated at how easily everything seems to work out, but the child-like outlook which the novel naturally brings out in us (created through the use of food and magic) not only makes up for this but allows us to actively engage with it in a positive way – deep down, everyone loves a happy-ever-after. Como agua para chocolate is a beautifully-written, touching novel which explores mature themes in a down-to-earth and relatable way; anyone with a passion for romance novels should read it, and those who tend to prefer other genres would find that it is a fresh and delightful read.