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

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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.

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