(This is the cover of my copy; I like it much better than the "updated" movie tie-in cover.)
Like Water for Chocolate is primarily a family saga. The novel tells the stories of the de Garda ladies: their relationships with each other and their family history and their family recipes. Beyond that, it's also the tale of love found and lost and found again. Above all else, it's the story of Tita de Garda, one of the strongest female protagonists I've come across in a while.
As the cover states, Like Water for Chocolate is a story told in monthly installments with recipes. There are twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, and each starts as a recipe. The ingredients are given, and then the author begins to tell of the preparation, and the story spins out from there. As we all know, food features quite prominently in North American traditions. We cook and eat not only to live, but also to physically nurture those who we love. We eat at celebrations such as weddings and baptisms. We eat at more grave family gatherings such as funerals. We associate certain people with the smells of their signature dishes. It was pure genius for Laura Esquivel to intertwine the family's stories with their food.
Right from the start of the story, the magical realism is evident. There is a liberty taken in describing certain events, but not enough of a liberty to make one believe in the actual existence of fantasy-level magic. For instance, Tita is described as having been born on the kitchen table. Her mother was crying so hard chopping onions that it brought on the labor and before anyone could do anything, Tita slipped right out onto the kitchen table, crying herself. We all know that babies don't simply "slip out" onto tables, but it totally works in the story.
Not only is the story told interlaced with recipes and magical realism, the prose also has an almost poetic cadence to it. It was very fluid slipping from sentence to sentence and page to page. If it hadn't been broken into months, I might have read through the whole book in one sitting without noticing!
I also loved Tita: she drew the short stick in life, but she doesn't give up. She's angry and sad, but continues to try to please those around her. She realizes that there is still life to be lived, but she doesn't ignore or invalidate her feelings; she embraces them and moves forward instead of getting mired down in them. I'm sure I'm not alone in cheering for Tita throughout the book!
Set in the Mexican countryside with very 3D characters, this novel-with-recipes is definitely a good read.
*I own my copy of Like Water for Chocolate.