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Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments, with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies.

Jacket copy reveals Doubleday's amusing attempts to buffer this accomplished first novel for its American market: "Evocative of How to Make an American Quilt in structure ... and Heartburn in its irony and wit, it is a lively and funny tale of family life in turn-of-the-century Mexico." An appreciative blurb from Diana Kennedy, an American expert on Mexican cooking, completes the scatter-brained introductory picture. (Just imagine reading a physician's authenticating remarks on the cover of The Death of Artemio Cruz, if you don't see my point.) Fortunately, this 1990 Mexican best-seller by screenwriter Laura Esquivel doesn't need the authentication, and it is spacious and gracious enough to accommodate these trivializing accolades. The reader who makes it past the comparisons and into the book will be taken by surprise - it's sort of like getting a really good cafe con leche when you'd been led to expect Sanka. This short novel's got more heat and light and imaginative spice than the American literary diet usually provides.

The narrator uses the device of a cookbook, found under the ashes of her ancestral home, as a means of telling the story of its author, her great-aunt Tita. Tita's sensitivity and affinity for the kitchen are depicted as prenatally established facts; on the first page of the novel, she is born early on a tide of her own tears into a mess of onions and spices on the kitchen table. She has no need of the usual slap on the bottom, because she is already crying. Perhaps, the book suggests, this is because of the onions. Or perhaps it is because Tita already knows she is fated to uphold a host of parasitical family traditions, most notably the custom of keeping youngest daughters unmarried to care for their mothers. When the salt residue from the tears is swept up, it fills a tenpound sack, which will be used for years of cooking. That detail, reminiscent of various odd storms in Garcia Marquez, sweeps the reader into a magical-realist narrative in which supposedly futile emotions are shown to have mythic and historic power.

It also introduces us to this author's gift of showing and telling her story: food is everywhere in this crafty book. References to it are tucked into the narrative like chocolate Easter eggs. (My favorite sentence: "Wrapped up like a taco, the baby was sleeping peacefully.") Tita's recipes, one per section, serve as mechanisms for and sometimes as commentaries on the plot. And for every reader who ever wished she could read letters through their blank sides in Jane Austen, this novel details ingredients. Interestingly, some of the foods and techniques called for, as well as the metric amounts, are among the untranslated elements in the text, leaving me to conclude that maybe recipes are even less translatable, in their way, than poetry.

Occasional bad moments in this book betray what seems, from an American point of view, to be an unsophisticated side of its author. For instance, the illegitimate mulatta sister is praised for her unusual gift of "rhythm," and her temporary career in a brothel is called, by the otherwise sensible Tita, a "liberation." Also, Pedro sometimes seems so unimaginative that only in fantasy, I thought, could such an underdeveloped male character and magical" ending satisfy Tita ... but of course this is fantasy, and maybe his better qualities are simply lost in cultural translation. In any case I was fated from birth to have these quarrels with Ms. Esquivel's novel, and I'd rather simply savor it. You will too. [Marisa Januzzi]
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Januzzi, Marisa
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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