BORN: 1951, Mexico City, Mexico
GENRE: Fiction, drama
Like Water for Chocolate (1991)
The Law of Love (1996)
A best-selling, highly respected author in her native Mexico, Laura Esquivel's first book Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua Para Chocolate, 1991) was a crossover success, earning her an international reputation. Esquivel merges folk stories, magic realism, and a feminist perspective in her writing, garnering both popular and critical acclaim. Like Water for Chocolate was a best seller in the United States. Employing the brand of magic realism that Colombian Gabriel García Márquez popularized, Esquivel blends culinary knowledge, sensuality, and alchemy with fables and cultural lore.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Child of the “Boom” Esquivel was born on September 30, 1950, in Mexico City, the daughter of Julio Caesar, a telegraph operator, and Josephine Esquivel. Growing up in Mexico, she was educated at Escuela Normal de Maestros. Esquivel grew up during a time when Latin American fiction was enjoying substantial worldwide popularity, known as the “boom.” This was due to authors such as García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who hailed from different Latin American countries but together developed and refined the qualities associated with modern Latin fiction. This includes magic realism, or the use of fantastic or supernatural
elements within an otherwise realistic story. This magic realist tradition was carried on by Esquivel when she became a novelist.
While teaching kindergarten for eight years, Esquivel became increasingly involved in children's theater workshops. Unable to find adequate plays, she began to write her own and from this she progressed to writing for children's public television in Mexico. Famed Mexican director Alfonso Arau, who was then her husband, encouraged Esquivel to continue writing, training her to write screenplays. She was nominated for the Mexican Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences Ariel Award for best screenplay for Chido Guan, el Tacos de Oro (1985). She conceived of her first novel Like Water for Chocolate originally as a screenplay. However, producers told her the script would be too costly to produce so she transformed it into a novel. The novel achieved overwhelming popularity in her native Mexico where it was a best seller, in Latin America, and in the United States where it spent several weeks on the New York Times Book Review best-seller list.
Like Water for Chocolate is the story of Tita, the youngest of three daughters born to Mama Elena, the
tyrannical owner of the De La Garza ranch. Tita is a victim of tradition: As the youngest daughter in a Mexican family she is obliged to remain unmarried and to care for her mother. Experiencing pain and frustration as she watches Pedro, the man she loves, marry her older sister Rosaura, Tita faces the added burden of having to bake the wedding cake. But because she was born in the kitchen and knows a great deal about food and its powers, Tita is able to bake her profound sense of sorrow into the cake and make the wedding guests ill. For the remainder of the novel, Tita uses her special culinary talents to provoke strange reactions. The character of Tita was partly inspired by Esquivel's own great-aunt, also named Tita.
Success Begets Success Encouraged by the novel's success, Esquivel and Arau decided to produce the film version themselves, with Arau directing and Esquivel penning the screenplay for which she won an Ariel award. Building upon her success, Esquivel published a second novel, The Law of Love (Ley del Amor, 1996). The book reflects her break with her family's traditional Catholic roots and her interest in Eastern philosophy and New Age ideas. The story opens with the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, the future site of Mexico City, and the rape of an Aztec princess atop a temple. Many centuries later, the principal actors of this earlier drama reappear as Azucena, her missing soul mate Rodrigo, and planetary presidential candidate Isabel in a confrontation that finally breaks the cycle of vengeance and hatred with love and forgiveness. Packaged as a multimedia experience, the novel includes a compact disc of Italian arias and Mexican love songs as well as illustrations by famed Spanish graphic artist Miguelanxo Prado. The reader is instructed to play the music and look at the pictures between chapters.
Esquivel continues to work and live in Mexico City with her second husband Javier Valdez, a dentist.
Works in Literary Context
From Inner Reality to Outer Reality As Esquivel related to Joan Smith in an interview about her novels, “I am always interested in that relationship between outer reality and inner desire, and I think it is important to pay attention to the inner voice, because it is the only way … to develop the strength to break with whatever familial or cultural norms are preventing you from fulfilling your destiny.” Despite this resistance to attachment to one's past, food has played a significant role in Esquivel's life since she was a child. Remembering her early cooking experiences and the aromas of foods prepared in her grandmother's house, she told Molly O'Neill of the New York Times that “I watch cooking change the cook, just as it transforms the food…. Food can change anything.” In Like Water for Chocolate, Esquivel uses food as a way of making Tita's emotions concrete and tangible. This is a common trait in magic realism and its predecessor, surrealism.
Feminine Power In her essay on the representation of women in Mexican culture, Maria Elena de Valdes credits Esquivel with revealing the power Mexican women exercised in the domestic sphere within a larger culture where they were virtually powerless. Through her focus on domesticity and cooking in her first novel, Esquivel explores the choices that women use to change their lives, to develop their creativity, and to express their individuality. De Valdes argues that Like Water for Chocolate has particular resonance with Latin American women. In addition, De Valdes suggests that this novel may serve to illuminate this feminist aspect of society to Latino men.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Esquivel's famous contemporaries include:
Martin Amis (1949–): English novelist, essayist, and short-story writer. Amis is best known for his novels London Fields (1989) and The Information (1995).
Alfonso Arau (1932–): Esquivel's ex-husband and acclaimed director and actor; he also directed the film adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate.
Martin Scorsese (1942–): American Academy Award–winning film director, writer, and producer. Scorsese's body of work addresses such themes as Italian American identity, Roman Catholic concepts of redemption and guilt, the violence endemic to American society, and machismo.
Isabel Allende (1942–): Chilean novelist who, like Esquivel, uses magic realism in her writing. She focuses on the experiences of women, weaving together auto-biography, myth, and realism. She is best known for her contributions to Latin American literature.
Martha Stewart (1941–): American business magnate, cookbook author, editor, and homemaking advocate. Stewart has held a prominent position in the American publishing industry for over twenty years, is the editor of a national homekeeping magazine, host of two popular American daytime television shows, and writer of hundreds of articles on the domestic arts.
Works in Critical Context
Some critics have praised Esquivel for her playful and unique style. Critics such as James Polk and Karen Stabiner credit Esquivel for creating an enticing and entertaining mix of recipes, romance, and magic. Marisa Januzzi points out that in Like Water for Chocolate, the author transforms seemingly futile emotions into powerful magical forces, which can alter the character's fate. However, while Januzzi praises Esquivel's imagination,
the critic admits that the author shows signs of immaturity in her plot development, a criticism echoed by other reviewers. Many critics cite Esquivel's book as arresting but light.
Critics are even less positive in their reviews of The Law of Love. Robert Houston writes: “no amount of razzle-dazzle can hide the fact that The Law of Love is seriously, perhaps even fatally, flawed.” Many critics agree that the plot is inadequately developed and that multimedia elements, while interesting, neither contribute to nor advance the story.
Responses to Literature
- What do you think Esquivel is trying to say about the role of women in her books? What is she trying to say about the roles of men? Does she see both as equals?
- Using the Internet and library sources, research magic realism and its history. Read at least one title that you find in your research and write an essay describing how magic realism is used in it.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Culinary expertise is crucial to human civilization and culture, yet it is often taken for granted in works of literature. Food plays a big role in Esquivel's first novel; the book includes recipes, and the main character, Tita, gets her revenge through her fantastic cooking skills. Here are a few other works that explore the power of food:
The Flounder (1978), a novel by Günter Grass. Nobel laureate Grass explores many themes, including world politics and feminism, using the language of cooking.
Babette's Feast (1987), a film directed by Gabriel Axel. This Academy Award–winning film records the careful preparations for an extravagant meal cooked by Babette, a Parisian political refugee living in an austere Danish village in the nineteenth century.
Big Night (1996), a film directed by Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci. Two Italian brothers run a restaurant and make a lavish feast to impress a restaurant critic in this comedy of errors.
Chocolat (1999), a novel by Joanne Harris. Set in France, this is the story of a young mother and her daughter who open a chocolate shop, bringing unexpected changes to the small town in which they live.
Barrientos, Tanya. “Malinche.” Philadelphia Inquirer (August 2006).
Cooke, Rachel. “Pleasure Zone.” New Statesman (August 2001).
Estrada, Mary Batts. “Like Water for Chocolate.” Washington Post (September 1992).
Nathan, Paul. “Esquivel's Next.” Publishers Weekly (February 1996).
O'Neill, Molly. “Sensing the Spirit in All Things, Seen and Unseen.” New York Times (March 1993).
Pizzichini, Lilian. “The Law of Love.” Times Literary Supplement (October 1996).
Polk, James. “Like Water for Chocolate.” Tribune Books (October 1992).