BOOK REVIEW / Lovers slowly roasting in flames of passion: 'Like Water for Hot Chocolate' - Laura Esquivel, Tr. Carol & Thomas Christensen: Doubleday, 6.99 pounds

Share
Related Topics
WHATEVER else we might say about it, there is no denying that Laura Esquivel's new novel is, well, novel. The love life of Tita, the youngest daughter in a large and intimidating Mexican family, is described in 12 chapters, each of which is named after a month, and each of which begins by describing a recipe. The book starts with tempting and delicious simplicity - 'Take care to chop the onion fine' - and by the end of the first page, when Tita tumbles prematurely on to the kitchen table, and is immersed in the odours of noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, coriander, steamed milk, garlic and onion, it is obvious that something unusual is cooking.

The preparation of food is more than just nice seasoning: the kitchen is the most important place in Tita's life: 'Thanks to her unusual birth, Tita felt a deep love for the kitchen, where she was to spend most of her life from the day she was born.' She is even endowed with a supernatural 'sixth sense' regarding domestic matters: 'Her eating habits were attuned to the kitchen routine: in the morning, when she could smell that the beans were ready; at midday, when she sensed the water was ready for plucking the chickens; and in the afternoon, when the dinner bread was baking, Tita knew it was time for her to be fed.'

What follows is a love story. But the heated career of Tita's emotions is set against a world of scorching and searing, of sifting and flavouring and slicing and pounding. In January, she creates Christmas rolls stuffed with sardine and sausage, and falls in love. In February she makes a wedding cake for her sister - 170 eggs preserved in crumbled sheep fodder and generously watered with her own unstoppable tears. In March, as if in revenge, she strangles the first bird for her Quail in Rose Petal Sauce ('she used too little force . . . it went running pitifully around the kitchen, its head hanging to one side'). And by now we realise that this is, for want of a better word, a chopping and plucking novel.

The story springs open fast. Tita falls in love with a man called Pedro - their eyes meet, and she feels like dough plunged into boiling oil. But Tita's mother, Elena, declares that her youngest daughter is not available for marriage, so Pedro marries Tita's sister instead. It is a cruel blow, alleviated somewhat by Pedro's insistence that he has only agreed to the marriage as a way of staying close to Tita.

For the rest of the novel (20 years) the lovers eye each other up and wait for a chance to acknowledge their incandescent passion. The book includes a recipe for making matches ('The gum arabic is dissolved in enough water to make a paste') and it is clear that Tita needs to be careful about lighting her own emotional candle. One slip, and the whole box could go up.

Tita is 'like water for hot chocolate' because she is 'on the verge of boiling over'. She should know: her own brew sounds gorgeous: several pounds of Caracas chocolate beans are toasted on a griddle, mashed into a paste with sugar, and blended with water. The mixture is brought to the boil, cooled, whipped, boiled again, cooled, beaten, fired up one more time, and decanted into a pot. The whole enterprise is delicate and risky: too hot a flame on the chocolate beans, or a moment's inattention when the mixture is at boiling point, and the magic flavour will evaporate in a flash.

As a metaphor for Tita's love life this is, we might think, a touch obvious; but Esquivel's strategy - the revelation of an emotional life by an examination of the cuisine in which it expressed itself - is a fine and unusual one. The book was written as a monthly serial, yet its metaphorical framework is carefully thought- out and effective.

Cooking is presented as a kind of alchemy: the magical transformation of life into food; and the book embraces the four elements. The novel opens with water: Tita is born during an onion-chopping spree, and is destined to flood the house with her tears. And it ends with flames: Tita and Pedro achieve a pyrotechnic consummation which sets fire to the ranch, and roasts the pair of lovers as easily as if they were Quail in Rose Petal Sauce. Earth makes its presence felt in the plentiful and varied supply of greengrocery - tomatoes, peppers, honey, pimento, almonds and so on. And air is in the air when Pedro's wife slowly and malodorously dies from excessive flatulence caused by a congestion of the stomach.

It is all very ingenious and likeable. The only surprising thing is the cheerful willingness with which Laura Esquivel seems to go along with the notion that Tita's place is in the kitchen. One might have thought that the whole point of her inspired culinary structure was that it would allow for some witty tension between the women and the domestic setting to which they are confined. But Esquivel seems content just to milk the pots and pans for mouthwatering smells and tastes.

What Pedro finds sexy about Tita is, first of all, her cooking. It's love at first bite: a couple of mouthfuls of her quail and Pedro is 'closing his eyes in voluptuous delight'. And things really warm up when Tita becomes, basically, a buxom wench pounding away at some chillies (a handy symbol of fiery heat): 'Tita, on her knees, was bent over the grinding stone, moving in a slow regular rhythm . . . Drops of sweat formed on her neck and ran down into the crease between her firm round breasts.'

The attempt to serve this up as a moment of intensity, without the slightest irony, seems faintly ridiculous, to say the least. But who knows? Maybe, in Mexico City, where the novel was at the top of the bestseller list for two years, people queue up to ask Laura Esquivel for the recipe. Take two firm round breasts. Grind them in a slow regular rhythm. Trickle some sweat into the crease, and allow to simmer. Add one brooding adulterer . . . and stand back.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office / Sales Manager

£22000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established and expanding South...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Syria's Kurds have little choice but to flee amid the desolution, ruins and danger they face

Patrick Cockburn
A bartender serves two Mojito cocktails  

For the twenty-somethings of today, growing up is hard to do

Simon Kelner
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones