A sumptuous feast of a novel, it relates the bizarre history of the all-female De La Garza family. Tita, the youngest daughter of the house, has been forbidden to marry, condemned by Mexican tradition to look after her mother until she dies. But Tita falls in love with Pedro, and he is seduced by the magical food she cooks. In desperation, Pedro marries her sister Rosaura so that he can stay close to her. For the next twenty-two years, Tita and Pedro are forced to circle each other in unconsummated passion. Only a freakish chain of tragedies, bad luck and fate finally reunite them against all the odds.
This is full blown Latin American magic realism. A world in which the tears of the cook send the wedding guests eating her food in to grief and a woman so aflame with passion she sets fire to the shower. Food is at the heart of the book, not only does each chapter includes a recipe, but the preparation of food and its consumption is magically linked to the heroine's sensuality. Even the imagery is food-based: Tita was literally 'like water for chocolate' she was on the verge of boiling over. I found the structural use of food and recipes in this way innovative and effective.
The story of suppressed love in a household ruled by an oppressive mother is highly suited to the genre. It is some ways a classic fairytale - Cinderella in fact. The magic allows for the expression of what is suppressed and yet the recipes also give a realistic grounding. In addition the book shows different cultures abutting each other - the earth-based magic of women like Tita in a more realistic world. Not only is Tita an inheritor of culinary magic and at the end a transmitter of it to future generations, but also provides traditional healing.
Okay so far, so good. Now for my misgivings: I had a problem with the love story. Tita falls for Pedro at first sight and that passion lasts through the book. But Pedro is a selfish ass much of the time, who doesn't seem to care how much he is hurting Tita or indeed the sister he marries in order to be near Tita. The argument seems to be that the physical attraction between Pedro and Tita is enough to sustain their love over the years. There is an alternative for Tita's affections - a gringo doctor - who is a lovely considerate man. Maybe this is just too much of fairytale for me: much as I love fairytales they aren't known for their emotional complexities and I do like emotional depth in a book.
I'm sure that this book will appeal more to women than men and to cooks and foodies in particular. The book is relatively short, only 222 pages in my edition, and so is a good introduction for someone who wishes to dip their toes into magic realism.