Picks and Pans Review: Like Water for Chocolate

updated 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Laura Esquirel

In this mystical, piquant novel, the trouble begins when Mama Elena, the fiendish matriarch of the De la Garza family, puts her foot down and keeps it there. "When it came to dividing, dismantling, dismembering, desolating, detaching, dispossessing, destroying or dominating," Esquirel writes, "Mama Elena was a pro."

Mama decrees that sensuous, voluptuous daughter Tita may not marry her sweetheart, Pedro. As the youngest of the three De la Garza daughters, she must, according to tradition, remain at home and care for Mama. But perhaps, Mama suggests, Pedro would like to marry Tita's older sister Rosaura and move onto the De la Garza ranch? To be near Tita, Pedro eagerly agrees. But no one factors into the bizarre arrangement the measure of Tita's heartbreak, the power of her love and, more to the point, the extent of her culinary necromancy—a talent that is the catalyst for much of the novel's drama.

Chocolate (translated from the Spanish by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) bears a sharp resemblance to Witney Otto's 1991 novel, How to Make an American Quilt, with recipes instead of quilt patterns. Esquirel divides her turn-of-the-century story into monthly installments, each beginning with a recipe that relates to the plot. Like The Old Farmer's Almanac, the text offers tips on ridding the house of bedbugs, storing eggs, making ink and relieving burns. In its lush fabulist tone, Chocolate also brings to mind Louise Erdrich's novel Tracks and the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the unblushingly earthy tale has its own particular charm in Tita, who does nothing by half. The residue of her tears, for example, once left enough salt to fill a 10-pound sack. To be rid of the chill that had racked her since Pedro married her sister, she began knitting a quilt large enough to carpet the estate.

While Esquirel's format becomes repetitive and obvious and some of the digressions are a bit attenuated, Chocolate is a savory and satisfying tale. (Doubleday, $17.50)

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