Content warning: This novel contains mature themes of abuse, death, rape, and sex, none of which are described in explicit detail. Some schools banned this book but others have it in their curriculum. Read at your own discretion.
And of course, spoiler warnings for the whole book.
Como agua para chocolate, translated as like water for chocolate, is a Spanish metaphor meaning intense feelings are boiling over, like boiling water for making hot chocolate. This is the title of Laura Esquivel’s novel, it explores themes of intense emotions and food to tell the story of the main protagonist, Tita. This novel was my first dive into Latin American literature, and it was something to get adjusted to. I personally don’t care for romance, so reading a romance novel was new to me. Nonetheless, I did try my best to be as open-minded as possible, and I’m very glad I had the chance to read it. It is also labeled under magical realism so It gets very bizarre, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Our narrator, unnamed but known to be a descendant of Tita, follows her over 12 months, each month acting as a chapter for itself. Tita lives with her mom, Mama Elena, and her sisters, Rosaura and Gertrudis. She suffered from an unfulfilled love towards Pedro due to her family's traditions. It’s explained very early on that Mama Elena is quite abusive to Tita, emotionally and physically, “The night of the wedding reception she had gotten a tremendous hiding from Mama Elena, like no beating before or since. She spent two weeks in bed recovering from her bruises” (pg. 41).
This was after the events of her sister Rosaura’s wedding, where everyone became violently ill after eating the cake Tita baked. While the true reasoning behind the illness was Tita’s tears, as it is magical realism, Mama Elena thought it was intentional and Tita suffered the consequences. Mama Elena is repeatedly shown to be a tough, stubborn, and unmatched head of the house. How she became this way is never explicitly revealed, but it can be interpreted that Mama Elena’s forbidden love for someone caused so much heartache and emptiness, it spiraled into the unhappy woman presently (pg. 137-138).
This newly revealed information to Tita surely acted as a warning. Throughout the book, it’s repeated that Tita loves Pedro, Rosaura’s husband, and Pedro loves her back. However, it’s also a forbidden love as Tita was always meant to be Mama Elena’s caretaker until she died due to tradition. Now, the big part of this novel that really ticked me the wrong way, is that Pedro decides to marry Rosaura to get closer to Tita. He thinks it’s this brilliant idea, but I’m positive if he hadn’t done that a lot of the problems from this novel would never have happened. Tita would never have to feel such immense guilt, which clearly was eating at her throughout the story, the feelings of Rosaura and her children would never have to be accounted for, and Pedro and Rosaura wouldn’t have to move away resulting in Tita going crazy. From that description alone, can you see the craziness of this story yet? I’m not saying whether or not I like how the plot was handled, it’s just really bizarre.
The core of this novel, that I've gathered, is that inexplicable things happen to Tita, or those in her family, and she’s usually the first to suffer consequences. Even her bridled rage, that causes severe physical symptoms, is the aftermath of her emotions towards her dead mother towards the end of the novel. A recurring theme of this novel is that intense emotions are bound to boil out somehow, like hot chocolate water (see what I did there?). While relationship development happens, the priority is clearly Tita trying to figure herself out and what she wants only to be disturbed by things out of her control, such as the death of her nephew. She only loses herself further, until she breaks. Yes, remember how I said she goes crazy? That wasn’t figurative, she’s seen by a doctor covered in bird droppings and naked (pg. 100). This is undeniably the result of abuse from Mama Elena as she’s still alive when this happened, and the loss of her love Pedro, but this is really where Tita recovers finally. At rock bottom, there’s really no other place to go but up for her.
Did I forget to mention Tita is engaged to the doctor that took care of her while she’s sick? Yeah, but let’s not get started on the fact he’s old enough to be her father, or that Tita is 15-17 during this story. As I see it, I believe neither of the love interests were any good to begin with. Tita is either obsessed with a 20-something who married her sister, or an at least 40-something that unintentionally forced Tita’s love. I say unintentionally because I don’t think he intended to groom Tita, but that’s what he did.
Anyway, after Mama Elena’s death, Rosaura and Pedro return to the ranch for an indefinite amount of time. Skipping a little to spare the details, Tita is convinced she’s pregnant with Pedro’s child and is now again overcome with intense emotions because she doesn't know how to handle the news. Of course Pedro takes it great, because he’s in love with her after all and he thinks everything's gonna be fine. But again, he neglects to think about any of the other characters, especially his wife. I described Mama Elena as head of the house, and recurring events show that men weren’t a necessity in her home. I think it’s worthwhile to point out the rock hard differences between Mama Elena and Pedro, the new patriarch. He often only thinks about himself, not in an arrogant way, but in a naïve way.
The ending of this novel really just made my blood boil; it’s nothing but the same problems repeated but they just get solved on their own with barely any change from Tita or Pedro. Mama Elena’s ghost leaves burns on Pedro’s skin but is ultimately released from the ranch. Fast forward, and Dr. John’s son marries Esperanza, Pedro and Rosaura’s daughter. While now Pedro and Tita are free to be together regardless of tradition. Honestly, there are no words to describe this conclusion, here, read it yourself,
“Little by little her vision began to brighten until the tunnel again appeared before her eyes. There at its entrance was the luminous figure of Pedro waiting for her...She let herself go to the encounter, and they wrapped each other in a long embrace...they left together for the lost Eden” (pg. 244).
I’ll admit, the way this scene is written is both a little bit gross to me, but also incredible. Let’s just say the night they spent together was literally breathtaking. Essentially, Tita swallows candles to ignite them with her memories of Pedro to die and follow him in the afterlife. This ultimate union of their spirits sets the entire ranch on fire leaving nothing but ash, but is described to look like fireworks when it started.
For my first romance novel, it was a really uncomfortable romance. Maybe, if one of the love interests wasn’t a fully-grown adult meant to offer Tita refuge, I’d be more forgiving. While the lack of backbone in a lot of these characters is seemingly nonexistent, I do understand why the author chose to do this. Previous scenes prove Mama Elena’s wrath and ability to strike fear, so I don’t believe anyone would realistically go against her without a good plan. I mean, Tita did it though. Moreso forcefully from her mental health than as an act of protest, but still, she showed her. Gertrudis is the only other character to stand up to Mama Elena, and she turned out the best. Yeah, she was disowned and her mother preferred to call her dead, but she was free from all that. As I said before, it feels like a lot of the problems could have easily been avoided if the characters made better decisions. Or, maybe even do anything at all when they chose to do nothing. You could argue that’s what the book looks to explore, when to act or when to do nothing against tradition.
On the other hand, the writing style and techniques used were out of this world. Just rereading the final scene with Pedro and Tita was breathtaking, even describing the process of preparing meals at the beginning of each chapter felt like art. Esquivel’s writing flows like a stream of consciousness, which is both a positive and negative thing about her writing. In some parts, it gets very difficult to follow because a lot of information is just unnecessary, like the Chinaman merchant.
However, this writing also makes it an incredibly easy read, taking seemingly complicated thoughts into coherent ideas that flow like a river, here’s a personal favorite excerpt, “Those huge stars have lasted for millions of years by taking care never to absorb any of the fiery rays lovers all over the world send up at them night after night. To avoid that, the star generates so much heat inside itself that it shatters the rays into a thousand pieces. Any look it receives is immediately repulsed, reflected back onto the earth, like a trick done with mirrors. That is the reason the stars shine so brightly at night.” This naïve idea is then turned around that Tita may find her sister Gertrudis’ heat reflecting off a star to know she’s warm and okay. It’s remarkable how the author manages to turn a complicated idea into a childlike wonder that is just normal.
When all’s said and done, it’s a book that will stick with me for a long time. With its strange divergence of magical realism and romantic buildup, it’s a unique book that may not resonate with all readers. Beyond that, it was just a great learning experience for me as it gave me the opportunity to learn about critical theory and techniques I’d never would have thought of. I’d recommend it if you’re more specifically looking to learn, or are deeply in love with romance novels. As I said, romance has never been my favorite genre, but there were many times I felt my own emotions boil over during the read.
is a high school sophomore with aspirations for digital storytelling. She always seemed to understand things better if she could read it, versus videos or lectures, so English and History quickly became her favorite subjects. She volunteers for both Juven and The Meraki Organization to tell stories.