Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is written in the style of Magical Realism, similar to the style of Mexican writer Elena Garro. Like Garro’s novel Los recuerdos del porvenir (1963; Recollections of Things to Come, 1969), Like Water for Chocolate employs a third-person narrator to tell the story of her dead family. The novel mixes two important elements of family life: love and food.
Esquivel called Like Water for Chocolate an installment novel, with family recipes structured according to the months of the year, beginning with January. Many more recipes, or “home remedies,” are used in the book, combining with the narration. Esquivel’s title comes from a saying common in some countries of Latin America: “Like water for chocolate,” which means to be, literally and figuratively, “at a boiling point.” In Mexico, for example, hot chocolate is often prepared by dissolving a tablet of chocolate in boiling water, not in milk (hence the expression). The novel’s main character, Tita de la Garza, uses the expression metaphorically, to signal how mad she is about having to remain in her house—as the youngest daughter—taking care of her mother while her sisters are free to live their lives.
Academically, the novel has been the subject of much analysis. It is required reading in many schools, colleges, and universities. This interest comes, in part, from the novel’s seemingly common story—lovers who cannot get together—and a fast-paced plot. However, what sets the novel apart from a simple romance is the cycle of failed romances: Mamá Elena is kept away from her lover because he is poor and a mulatto; the family cook, Nacha, never finds a partner; Rosaura marries Pedro knowing that he loves Tita; and Dr. John Brown loves Tita but cannot marry her. More important is Pedro and Tita’s romance. They finally find a moment of love, but die together, in ecstasy.
Another feature of the novel is its Magical Realism, intermingled with humor, life experience, and recipes. Magical Realism is a technique employed by many Latin American writers in which time-shifts, dreams, and surrealistic descriptions, as Helene Price says, “are recounted in a matter-of-fact tone, as if they were commonplace events. In other words, within the ontological parameters of the text, magical things really do happen.”
Other themes in the novel have received critical analysis, including the relationships between mothers and daughters, the presence of women in the Mexican revolutionary army, and the position of women in society. The great success of the novel, and the 1992 film (1993 in the United States) of the same name, which also was a hit with audiences, led some critics to consider the novel a best seller. They argue, however, that best sellers aimed at women readers rarely propose social or cultural change. In fact, in Like Water for Chocolate, Tita never really challenges the rules of her mother, even though they affect her negatively. It seems that Tita just wants to be a good wife, a great mother, and an excellent cook. Other critics declare that Esquivel is appropriating the spaces assigned to women—the home and the kitchen—to subvert tradition, and gender roles. Instead of feeling imprisoned in her own kitchen, Tita uses that space as a place of self-fulfillment.