I rather enjoyed this book, as a fun way to practice my Spanish. But I have no idea why anybody thinks it’s capital-L-Literature.
Like Water for Chocolate is a total soap opera, complete with several love triangles, fights over babies, embarrassing diseases and people having sex on horseback while galloping across a field. (Really!) I won’t come down too hard on it for this, because Esquivel is in control of it; the resemblance to a telenovela is clearly intentional. It’s also a novel about cooking, divided up into twelve chapters by month (although it’s unclear why, as the novel covers far more than a year and events tend not to take place in the month corresponding to the chapter in which they appear). Each chapter begins with a recipe, each one crucial to the story, where the protagonist is able to express herself and exert control over her world primarily through her cooking.
Overall, this book is guilty pleasure reading--the writing is simple even in the original Spanish (although still much better than the awful English translation), the characters archetypical, and although it’s set during the Mexican Revolution, we learn almost nothing about the time period, which mostly serves as a backdrop for the parallel rebellion against authority in the De la Garza household. There is some humor, which foodies in particular will appreciate: “Just let me take this off the burner, and then you can go right back to crying, okay?” says one character in an emotional moment. The magic realism feels a bit awkward, but is at least consistent, and the idea of an oppressed woman rebelling through her cooking--which often has magical properties--explains some of the attention from literary critics.
But most readers will be more interested in the romance, which caters to a particular taste. I suspect this book is popular in large part because of current trends in fictional romances: these days we like to see reasons for our protagonists’ falling in love, we want to be shown that they’re compatible, we want their sexual relationships to be characterized by mutual respect and clear consent. I include myself in that “we,” while understanding that for many, that just isn’t very romantic. Maybe you like love at first sight, that strikes like lightning and has just as much logic behind it; maybe you like sex scenes that look like rape, but aren’t, because the woman actually wants it. If you are that kind of reader, you’ll likely enjoy the romance here much more than I did. (Although, taste aside, the main love interest still has no positive qualities, except perhaps for consistency. He’s jealous and whiny and has no courage, common sense or strength of character.)
Overall, this is a fairly entertaining book, especially if you are a foodie and/or want to read a Mexican soap opera. The positive response from literary types still baffles me, though.