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Esquivel, Laura: 1951 (?)—: Novelist

Laura Esquivel: 1951 (?): Novelist


Like Water for Chocolate, a unique novel in the form of a cookbook by the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel, became one of the surprise literary hits of the 1990s and spawned one of the most successful foreign-language films of all time in the United States. Esquivel followed up that novel with other works that, if less consistently acclaimed, displayed equal originality. Like her Chilean contemporary Isabel Allende, Esquivel put a feminist twist on the important Latin American literary trend of "magical realism," embedding supernatural elements symbolic of deep forces inside conventionally realistic narratives. With her sense of humor and her winning way of describing family dynamics in Like Water for Chocolate, however, Esquivel merged magical realism with a storyteller's common touch.

Born in Mexico City around 1951, Esquivel was the daughter of a telegraph operatora profession that plays a role in Esquivel's novel Swift as Desire. Although many novelists look back on a childhood filled with books, Esquivel gained her narrative sense from stories told to her by her parents, especially her father. "I loved to get sick because he'd come and stay with me and invent stories with great characters," Esquivel told Southwest Review. "A long time ago he bought a reel-to-reel tape recorded and we would spend whole afternoons inventing stories and taping them, with all kinds of interesting sound effects and things." Esquivel also inherited a wealth of cooking lore from her grandmother.

Attracted to 1960s Counterculture

Attending the Escuela Normal de Maestros in Mexico City, a teachers' college, Esquivel worked toward a career in early childhood education. The student counterculture of the late 1960s, which affected Mexico as strongly as it did the United States, left its mark on Esquivel. "I was pretty much a hippie," she told Southwest Review. "I was a vegetarian, gypsy-like. I liked to meditate, and it's curious because I was very much attracted to the possibility of change." After college Esquivel became a kindergarten teacher. Her own creative potential was reawakened when she resolved to stage plays with her young students and discovered that few plays in Spanish for young children were available. She solved the problem by writing new ones herself.

Esquivel married a young filmmaker, Alfonso Arau, from whom she took a screenwriting course. Growing more and more interested in drama and film herself, Esquivel wrote scripts for children's television programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She penned the screenplay for a film directed by Arau, Chido One, El taco de oro, and was nominated for an Ariel award, the Mexican equivalent of the Oscar, for best screenplay in 1985. Esquivel then began work on the novel Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate ), which was published in 1989.

At a Glance . . .

Born ca. 1951 in Mexico City, Mexico; daughter of Julio Esquivel, a telegraph operator, and Josephina Esquivel; married film director Alfonso Arau (divorced, 1993); children: Sandra. Education: Attended Escuela Normal de Maestros, a teachers' college, Mexico City. Religion: Raised Roman Catholic; as an adult has adhered to a mixture of indigenous and New Age beliefs.

Career: Worked as a teacher for eight years, 1970s; wrote scripts for children's television and dramatic presentations, late 1970s and early 1980s; wrote screenplay for Chido One, el taco de oro, a film directed by Alfonso Arau, 1985; published debut novel, Like Water for Chocolate, 1991; published The Law of Love, 1996; published Swift as Desire, 2000.

Awards: Ariel award nomination, Best Screenplay, Mexican Academy of Motion Pictures, for Chido One, 1985.

Addresses: OfficeDoubleday Books, 666 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10103.

Like Water for Chocolate (in Spanish the title connotes a state of approaching the boiling point, of restless ferment or sexual arousal) traces the story of a young woman named Tita de la Garza who has been forbidden by her mother to marry the man she loves, who is betrothed to her older sister. Tita is forced to prepare the wedding cake, and discovers that her tears, which have fallen into the batter, have magical powersthey cause everyone at the wedding party to begin weeping uncontrollably over their own failed love affairs. Food plays a role in all the novel's important plot junctures, and each chapter contains a recipe that both applies to the situation at hand and carries rich overtones of folklore. The Times Literary Supplement noted approvingly that the reader could enjoy "two books for the price of one: a cookery book and a love story, with a distinctive Hispanic flavour."

Esquivel's novel became a bestseller in Mexico. It was well received after its translation into English and publication in the United States in 1990, but really gained momentum after the 1992 release of the film version, adapted for the screen by Esquivel herself and directed by Arau. The film, which garnered several awards both inside and outside Mexico, spurred sales of the novel that resulted in its translation into more than 30 languages; more than three million copies of the book have been printed worldwide. The film, Esquivel told Entertainment Weekly, was a "labor of love between [herself and Arau], like a child almost." Soon after the film's release, however, Esquivel and Arau were divorced. Esquivel later married a dentist, Javier Valdez, whom she has called her twin soul.


Fortified by her regime of meditation (Esquivel was raised Catholic but holds to a blend of indigenous and New Age beliefs) and rising every morning at 5:30 a.m. to write, Esquivel has been prolific in the years since Like Water for Chocolate was published. She continued to write film screenplays, and her second novel, The Law of Love (La ley del amor ), was released in the United States in 1996. Less suited to cinematic treatment than Like Water for Chocolate, it was equally innovative formally: the book came packaged with a CD of music that ranged from Italian opera to Mexican danzón and included a series of 48 cartoon-like illustrations. The novel's plot moved between pre-Columbian Mexico and the 23rd century, depicting a romance and incorporating science-fiction and New Age ideas.


Book Illustrated with Drawings

The same innovative spirit with regard to form was evident in Esquivel's next book, the nonfiction Between Two Fires (Intimas suculencias ), an essay collection, again illustrated with drawings, that ranged from philosophy to culinary meditations in the vein of Like Water for Chocolate. A theme running through these writings was Esquivel's idea of the New Man, who "will give equal value to production and reproduction, to reason and emotion, to the intimate and the public, to the material and the spiritual" All of Esquivel's writings have unfolded against a backdrop of the changing relationships between men and women in Mexican society, and the same was true of her 2001 release Swift as Desire, (Tan veloz como el deseo ).


That book, which Library Journal called "a welcome improvement over the New Age theme of its not-so-successful predecessor," depicted (as did Like Water for Chocolate ) a frustrated love affair. Its narrator Lluvia investigates the dissolution of the marriage of her parents after her father, a Maya-descended telegraph operator who can sense the electrical life force present in others, becomes enmeshed in a game of chance that derails his marriage. Clearly Laura Esquivel had many more stories to tell of a changing Mexico in which women were in the process of reconnecting with ancient wisdom.


Selected writings

Como agua para chocolate (novel), Editorial Planeta Mexicana, translated as Like Water for Chocolate, Doubleday, 1991.

La ley del amor (novel), translated as The Law of Love, Crown, 1996.

Intimas suculencias (essays), translated as Between Two Fires, Crown, 2000.

Tan veloz como el deseo (novel), translated as Swift as Desire, Crown, 2000.

Sources

Periodicals

Entertainment Weekly, April 23, 1993, p. 23; September 21, 2001, p. 78.

Library Journal, February 1, 1997, p. 126; August 2001, p. S33.

Publishers Weekly, July 22, 1996, p. 225; December 4, 2000, p. 70; July 16, 2001, p. 165.

Southwest Review, Autumn 1994, p. 592.

Times Literary Supplement (London, England) April 16, 1993, p. 22.


On-line

Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group. 2001. (http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC).

James M. Manheim

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