Category Archives: world literature

Madame Bovary, Part Two

I am sorry for posting this a bit late. I meant to do it early this morning, but A. I had a lot going on and B. I had no idea what I planned to write. I was tempted to write: “Emma, shut up and stop bitching” but thought surely I could come up with something more literary than that.

I have stewed most of the day about it and have come to a conclusion. The older Emma gets, the more angry she becomes. Her anger bubbles over, and she snaps at her child, her husband, her maid, everyone around her (that’s not the conclusion part). Frances focuses on the web of lies Flaubert spins for his characters, and though I think it’s a significant part of the book, I think the worst lie is the abstract one Emma focuses on. Emma thinks the world has lied to her, and she hates life because of it (there it is).

Life isn’t supposed to be like this, she thinks. Every moment leading up to her marriage, she lived in anticipation of that fulfillment, that idea of love she has carried around. She tries to discover “just what was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “intoxication,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Tucked away in a convent as a young girl where she is rewarded for her spiritual ardor, all the while sneaking highly-romanticized novels, Emma lives in an alternate reality. It is a mystical place, and Emma embraces it fully. When her mother dies, she writes a letter to her father, and the contents of the letter so worry him, he visits her, and

Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel that she had, at her first attempt, reached that rare ideal of pallid lives, which mediocre hearts will never attain. And so she allowed herself to slip into Lamartinean meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to the song of every dying swan, to the falling of every leaf … [until] [s]he became bored with this, did not want to admit it … and was at last surprised to find … that there was no more sadness in her heart than there were wrinkles on her forehead.

Her dramatic nature has never been curbed, and through the ever-disappointed Emma and her love of novels, Flaubert swiftly eviscerates romanticism and its dangers. Emma acts her life; she doesn’t live it. When she attempts to be a good mother and wife, it’s draining, yet she feels better having almost (at least on pretext) been a loving wife and mother. Flaubert does not allow the reader any illusions, though. When Emma pushes her daughter Berthe away from her and Berthe cuts her cheek, Emma seems suddenly maternal. She insists on remaining with the child, but in her quiet moment she looks at

a few large teardrops … gathered in the corners of her half-closed eyelids, through whose lashes one could glimpse two pale, sunken pupils; the adhesive plaster, stuck to her cheek, pulled the stretched skin to one side.

“How strange,” though Emma. “The child is so ugly!”

She is detached, even in that second, and cannot make herself feel as she should. She is an actress, never fully involved in her own life and therefore, she is unable to enjoy it as well. Upon receiving a letter from her father, she becomes nostalgic, and again, it’s almost as if she’s viewing her life on a stage:

How happy those days had been! How free! How full of hope! How rich in illusions! There were none left now! She had spent them in all the different adventures of her soul, in all those successive stages she had gone through, in her virginity, her marriage, and her love; — losing them continuously as her life went on, like a traveler who leaves some part of his wealth at every inn along his road.

But what was making her so unhappy? Where was the extraordinary catastrophe that had overturned her life? And she lifted her head and looked around, as though seeking the cause of what hurt her so.

Here she recognizes the illusion and in almost the same instant, pushes the blame away from herself, looking around to identify who or what is to blame for her intense displeasure. Finding no one, she places the blame squarely on her husband, who, to her, represents her entrapment. Flaubert tells us, though, to be prepared for this. In Part One, he describes Emma as

Accustomed to the calm aspect of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins. She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, — being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.

Emma seeks something fleeting, something on the air she cannot quite grasp. I fear it will remain ever elusive and that Emma’s hatred of her life and the world can only turn inward.

*But that’s just what I think. Check out Frances at nonsuch book and all the other links to see what other readers thought of Part 2. And thanks, Frances! I am finding the conversation most interesting.


Madame Bovary, Part One

Charles Bovary – the monsieur to the madame, can be summed up in seven pages. That’s the length Flaubert devotes to Charles Bovary’s life, from childhood to adulthood. The young boy is nothing of note; neither is the man, though a doctor, until he meets Mademoiselle Emma. Flaubert gives the distinct impression that nothing has ever really interested Charles. His mother has orchestrated his life, and he has allowed her machinations. However, when he goes to set a well-to-do farmer’s broken leg, he certainly notices the farmer’s young, pretty daughter Emma.

As the book is named after the second Madame Bovary, I thought it curious she is not mentioned sooner. She begins her life as a character almost as an aside in this novel. It seems appropriate as (at least my prediction) is that she will never come to the glory the reader sees she seeks in her quiet moments. Emma seems quiet and subdued, but we get glimpses of her true character; she’s utterly bored with her life.

It seemed to her that certain places on earth must produce happiness, like a plant that was peculiar to that soil and grew poorly in any other spot….Perhaps she would have liked to confide in someone about all these things. But how does one express an uneasiness so intangible, one that changes shape like a cloud, that changes direction like the wind? She lacked the words, the occasion, the courage.

Her naiveté here is very apparent, as it is wholly unlikely a change of scenery is the true problem with the young Madame Bovary. Charles, on the other hand, thrives with Emma by his side. He came, in fact, to

respect himself more because he possessed such a wife. In the parlor, he would proudly show off two small sketches of hers, done in graphite, which he had had framed in very wide frames and hung against the wallpaper with long green cords.

But his behavior only grates against Emma’s already-thin nerves, particularly after she has a small but delectable taste of the life she has read of and dreamed about in sensational novels. Attending a ball with its requisite excitement and glamour, Madame Bovary is bereft at its close. She comes home and

reverently she put away in the chest of drawers her beautiful dress and even her satin shoes, whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: contact with wealth had laid something over it that would not be wiped away.

She bought herself a map of Paris, and, with the tip of her finger on the map, she would take walks in the capital. She would go along the boulevards, stopping at each corner, between the lines of the streets, in front of the white squares that represented the houses. Her eyes tired at last, she would close her lids…

The more I read (and I read much farther than Part One), the more I felt conflicted. Charles is, as mentioned, a bit of a bore, but he’s just a simple man who takes pleasure in simple things. Emma, though, is not simple. She may be the daughter of a farmer, but novels or something much more basic has placed wanderlust in her heart. As irritating as I found her at times, I could also relate to that. She feels trapped, and I can almost guarantee as I keep reading, she will find a way around that – whether it ends well or not.

*Sincere thanks to Frances at Nonsuch Book. Without her fabulous giveaway, I would not own such a gorgeous copy of this novel. Check out her site for other initial views of Madame Bovary.

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Dolce Belleza

Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh was released in Lebanon in Arabic in September 2005. The novel, recounting details about the private lives of four young women from Saudi Arabia’s upper classes, immediately became a sensation all over the Arab world. Hundreds of articles were written about it, politicians and pundits debated it publicly, online chat rooms were crowded with people hotly discussing it, and it sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the first several months – not including countless black-market editions…. In this bold debut, Rajaa Alsanea reveals the social, romantic, and sexual tribulations of four young women from the elite classes of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Every week after Friday prayers, an anonymous female narrator sends emails to the subscribers of her online list-serv. In fifty such emails, spanning more than a year, the Scheherazade-like narrator unfolds little by little the comic-tragic reality of a small group of girlfriends…as they negotiate their love lives, their professional successes, and their rebellions, large and small, against their cultural traditions.

When I saw the cover of this book and read the jacket, I added it, without a second thought, to my library book bag. I am fascinated with women’s issues and thought this would definitely be a must read for me. How had I not heard of it before? Once I flipped to the actual story, though, I understood. Much like Gossip Girl, some show with a horrible actress all my students love, the narrator of Girls of Riyadh is in the business of gossip. The gossip does not appear to be mean-spirited, but she does divulge all the secrets of four girls: Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees. Each girl is privileged, coming from money and the upper tier of Riyadh. In a world of arranged marriages, where divorce is shameful, and women are chattel, the reader may think wealth can abate these problems. The girls certainly do have fun but although the girls and their antics could be entertaining, what follows is not great literature. BUT.

(And that’s a big “but.”)

I have thought quite a lot about this book. You’ve probably noticed from my 2010 reads, I don’t review everything I read. Some, to me, just don’t seem to be worth the time. Others, I need a little distance from in order to write a better review. Some just have to sit awhile. The thing about this book is, it affected me. It took me a couple of days to read, and after an afternoon of sitting with it, I ran to the grocery store. When I got home and walked toward the home that I own, as a single woman, having just stepped out of a car I bought without any help, I thought: I’m so lucky. These women cannot make a step without a. permission and b. judgment. They aren’t allowed to happily or foolishly fall in love without rules. Even when a couple of the girls broke out from their cookie-cutter roles, they were either punished, shunned, or made to feel guilty.

I know a lot of people just thought of this as a young girl’s (she was 24 when she wrote it) spoiled rant about not getting her way. And, yes, there certainly are spaces in the book where I thought the same. But it’s different. These girls may have wealth and beauty and status. The point is not that we should feel sorry for them. The fact is, in spite of their wealth and beauty, these women face obstacles to freedom. Big, huge, ugly ones. Give me all the wealth in the world, but if I cannot be in the presence of men, say, at a coffee shop or mall, without a chaperone or covering, I don’t want it.

Also, the book was full of small tidbits of Saudi culture. Having taught two Saudi students in my first summer session, I was eager to attain additional knowledge. My two male students had really opened my eyes to life in Saudi Arabia. Alsanea furthered that education. At one point, the four girls are going out to celebrate. The women arrive at a cafe in a car with tinted windows. In the late 90s, this was apparently standard for men who did not want their wives and daughters exposed to the eyes of men. Attracted to the car and what it holds,

[the men] jumped in their cars and surrounded the SUV on both sides. After the girls got the drinks they wanted from the drive-through, the entire parade started to move toward the big shopping mall in Al-Olayya Street, which was the girls’ second stop. Meanwhile, the girls were taking down as many phone numbers as they could. They did not have to work very hard, because these numbers were generously showered upon them by the guys. The girls could memorize those with catchy sequences and repeated digits as the guys stuck out their heads through their cars’ windows while driving and kept repeating them for the girls to write down. The girls also copied from placards the guys had hung on the windows of their cars so that girls in neighboring cars could see the numbers clearly. The truly bold knights among them held out personal business cards, passing them through the windows to be snatched up by the girls, who were every bit as brave as the aspiring Romeos. At the mall entrance the girls got out. Behind them appeared a rush of young men, but they all came to a stop uncertainly in front of the security guard. It was his job to keep all unmarried men from entering the mall after the call to Isha prayer that ushered in nightfall.

This sounds so utterly fantastical. Had I not learned so much from my Saudi students, I might have thought this an exaggeration. However, both told me it is common for people to meet this way. The traffic can be so bad, drivers can reach out and touch the person in the next car. One of my students said clandestine dates are often planned during traffic jams.

Overall, I would hold to my conviction about this book. It’s not great. The writing is poor; it is a translation. It reads much like a young girl’s diary. What elevated this book for me was the author’s bravery in publication and her desire to amplify the issues affecting young women in Saudi Arabia as well as the informative look at a culture so different from my own.

The Girl Who…. Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Let me be straight with you, lest I color your perception of these books: I am a big ole scaredy cat. The biggest. I love reading mysteries, but most do not make me curl up into the fetal position. The last scary movie I watched was What Lies Beneath with Michele Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. I saw it at the theater and lay across the theater seats of my then-boyfriend and his best friend, crying. (They were not amused.) I cannot watch Law & Order: SVU even though I love it. Law & Order: Criminal Intent? Forgettaboutit. I can handle murder, violence, and mayhem, but sexual torture? Torture in general? Nope. Can’t do it.

Flash forward to the night I stayed up devouring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I. Was. Petrified. Sexual torture mixed with a basement full of torture devices and Biblical punishment meted out by a madman? I broke out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t get up and check my alarm system because my bed was the only safe haven anywhere, and the light from my bedside lamp, while reassuring, also ensured I was visible to the evil outside my lair. Suffice it to say, I was not looking forward to the other books.

However, a friend whose opinion I trust told me the next book wasn’t so bad. Last week, I borrowed it and read it cover to cover. If you’ve read this far, you probably know a bit about the books, so I won’t spend too much time summarizing. Lisbeth Salander, the antisocial, enigmatic young woman with a violent streak is back in The Girl Who Played with Fire. She has spent time in many different countries and returns to Sweden to determine the best way to have Nils Bjurman, her guardian, declare her competent (some mystery from her past caused Salander to be institutionalized as a child). No worries; she has something to hold over his head, and of course, she has a plan.

Mikael Blomvqist is back as well, sleeping around as usual, and is occasionally curious about Salander. He and two journalists, Dag and Mia, are working on a scoop about sexual trafficking in Sweden. Very quickly, Dag and Mia are murdered, Blomqvist finds them, and in a strange twist, Salander is being hunted as the killer. The tale that unravels involves the Soviet Union, spies, conspiracy, a killer with a disorder that makes him feel no pain, Salander, and a mysterious figure named Zalachenko. (Yes, really). I won’t give any more away, but I will say that the book ends abruptly with quite a cliffhanger. I borrowed the next book and learned that Larsson originally intended the first three books to be one continuous volume.

The other thing I learned (through reading – couldn’t confirm it anywhere) is that absolutely no one chose to edit these last two books. The first book was fast paced and had a tightly-written mystery, although the ending did seem to drag a bit. The second two books were full of such unbelievable coincidences and strange rabbit holes that the lack of editing was glaring. I still enjoyed the books because I am intrigued by Salander’s character and wanted to know more about her. However, the loose ends and the blatant tying of those ends lacked the initial ingenuity of the trilogy and left me again questioning if there was an editor. Was there some argument that since Larsson died, no one could edit the manuscripts? Was it for posterity’s sake? I’m really asking. If you know the answer, please comment. I think, as a writer, Larsson would have preferred the polished end product editing provides.

Instead, the public is left with The Girl Who… mania and not a whole lot of consistency and a bit too much substance, at times. It also struck me that these three books are almost totally different genres. The first book is two parts mystery, two parts thriller. The second book is suspenseful but reads more like a John Le Carre novel than an out-and-out mystery. The third book is pure John Grisham. Salander sits in a hospital bed for most of it, using her personal computer device to track down information and to determine the identity of Ericka Berger’s stalker. Whaaa? There is a laughable trial where the attorneys parade in witnesses but also speak to people in the courtroom who aren’t testifying. Whaa? Then, when the book is presumably over, Salander stumbles upon the killer from the second book and survives. Whaaa?

There is talk of someone taking Larsson’s extensive plot notes and character sketches for the other seven planned books and completing them. I’ll make my formal request to a writer who is alive and kicking and who writes thoughtful, complex, well-edited novels: Ian Rankin. Or, better yet, Mr. Rankin: pleeeease write more Inspector Rebus novels.

Devolving from an intelligent series to a John Grisham pulp, the last two books of The Girl Who…trilogy are not ideal, and I hoped for a lot more from this promising series.

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

I hate when I really, really love the first book I pick up by any particular author. It makes anything thereafter usually pale in comparison. I’m not saying that is always the case. However, I read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende because her book The House of the Spirits is one of my all-time favorite books. If you haven’t read it, please please add it to your TBR list right away. The last time I was at the library, I decided to try to remove the stigma of the first great book and pick up another Allende.

From the blurb:

Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaiso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquin Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of norther California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealthy. Joaquin takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

Although it sounds promising, this book became really tedious for me at times. In fact, almost any book I read, I read in one or two sittings. This book took a bit longer, and I needed frequent breaks. I really enjoyed the historical aspect of this novel as well as the look into life in China during the 1800s and the Gold Rush. The character Tao Chi’en was my favorite. He is a zhong yi, or medicine man. As a young boy, he is sold into service but manages through his healing skills to be sold again as an apprentice to a Cantonese master. The man teaches Tao Chi’en and guides him through life. After a series of unfortunate events, Tao Chi’en is shanghaied into service at sea. Apparently, this was common practice. The sea men would get a man drunk and either force him to sign a document of service or use his thumbprint. Tao Chi’en wakes up aboard ship, but his skills as a healer are noticed early on, and the captain, John Sommers, comes to respect him. Tao Chi’en later helps Eliza follow Joaquin to San Francisco, and again, their relationship is interesting, but Allende doesn’t fully develop it.

The book drags. I could not stand Eliza’s character once she falls in love. Her actions are rash, and after a certain point, they are also completely unbelievable. She follows her lover to San Francisco and endures all sorts of hardship simply to find him. She continues  her search, at times, out of principle only. Her exploration of a woman’s freedom is refreshing but a bit – again – unbelievable. Her foster mother, Rose, has a back story that also tries to reinforce the theme of female independence; it’s just not very convincing. Worst of all, the ending was the most abrupt I believe I have ever read. I really had to look (as this is a library book) to make sure no pages were torn from it. Nope. It just ended.  There are a lot of things for which I will forgive an author, but an unsatisfying ending is not one of them. It felt shocking (outside of the story). Within the story, it just did not seem to make sense. There was quite a bit more I wanted to know upon reading the last sentence.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

It’s not often I venture from the tried and true. I’m an American lit girl. I’ll stray for a good mystery, and I’ve always loved British lit, but I’m an American reader through and through. I’m fascinated by novels of race and identity, and the collective consciousness of American writers intrigues me. However, I’m also very open minded as a reader. (Yes, you can be open minded and picky – I promise… I know you were thinking it.) The world of book blogging has made me consciously consider my reading choices, and for that, I am very grateful. I don’t mean that I run out and pick up the book about which everyone is blogging. Far from it. I would much rather find my own rewarding reads. The library makes that a possibility for me. I know some bloggers are making a concerted effort not to spend money on books for very valid and personal reasons. My reason is necessity. This past year, after quitting a lucrative but miserable job to teach as a university adjunct instructor (a choice I don’t regret in the least), life has been difficult financially. So the library enables me to make adventurous choices in my reading.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was an adventurous choice for me. Set in Dhaka, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and in the 1970s, the surroundings were completely foreign to me. I love to travel, but have never visited this region of the world. The novel opens with the words: “Dear Husband, I lost our children today.” No, the children have not died, and no, they are not simply lost in the colorful markets of Bangladesh. Rehana Haque, widow, has been declared unfit to raise her children because she has little money and took her children out of school to see Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. She grieves, and in grieving, her brother and sister-in-law make a play to raise the children on their own across all of India in Lahore, West Pakistan. This event shakes Rehana deeply and forever alters her life even though she is able to get her children back. As grown children, Sohail and Maya are headstrong, enthusiastic, convicted citizens who want a better life and a better country. When her son decides to join in fighting, he leaves and cannot stop him, “not just so she would have Sohail’s confidence, but because she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge. This was who she had hoped he would become, even if she had never imagined that her son, or the world, would come to this.” Rehana worries her children will be lost to her once again when internal and external conflicts threaten their existence.

A tale of love, loss, heartbreak, war, and sacrifice, A Golden Age is full of humanity and the lengths to which a mother can and will go in the fight for her children.

Robin Hood – How he became the prince of thieves

Legends. Mythology. Creative non-fiction. I love it all. So, the new Robin Hood movie? Of course I had to check it out. In preparation, I watched Kevin Reynolds’ 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was an interesting experience as the movie was huge when I was in middle school, and I remember the music fondly (we played it in marching band). In 2010, it held pretty well, except for Kevin Costner’s awful hair and even worse, nonexistent British accent. Robin Hood sounds pretty nondescript American. Who knew? With a cast including Morgan Freeman (whom I love) and Christian Slater (can’t stand him) and Alan Rickman (brilliant), it was pretty entertaining. It was much more violent than I remembered or would have anticipated from a movie in the early 90s.

As far as the story goes, Robin of Locksley comes back from the Crusades, having escaped prison and saving Azeem (Morgan Freeman). His friend Peter is mortally injured in the escape and makes Robin promise to safeguard Lady Marian. Robin and Azeem return to England, where he butts heads with Guy of Gisbourne (Michael Wincott) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). Training of peasants ensues, the Sheriff is dastardly and devious plotting with Mortiana to become king. As I said, entertaining.

Fast forward to 2010 and Ridley Scott’s version, Robin Hood,with the all-too-fitting tag line: The Untold Story Behind the Legend.” Now, color me picky…. but with Batman, I’m fascinated with how Bruce Wayne morphs into this avenging, brooding, complex creature. With Robin Hood, I just want to see some hoodwinks (excuse the sorry pun). Instead, what I saw was a very Gladiator-like** Russell Crowe fighting in battle, standing up to King Richard the Lion Heart, rebelling when his master’s morality is questioned, and fighting a bit more.

Robin Longstride, as he has been penned for the movie, is the son of a stone mason who fought for equality and was killed for it … in front of his own son. Flashbacks similar to Gladiator abound. As Longstride leaves King Richard dead on the battlefield – we are playing fast and loose with history here – he runs across the remains of an ambush in which the knight Locksley dies. In order to cross over to London, Robin and his not-so-merry men, take on the royal guard’s persona to pass safely. Robin promises the dying Locksley he will return his father’s sword to him at Nottingham. Robin does so, and the fabulous Max von Sydow plays a blind Locksley, asking Robin to stand in for his son, so that his daughter-in-law Marian does not lose her land. Don’t worry: there’s not a lot of sexual chemistry between the two. The sheriff is wholly unmemorable but not for his performance as much as lack of story line. This particularly saddens me as the sheriff is played by Matthew Macfayden. Even with such a large cast of characters, though, the plot was fairly simple and easy to follow. As Jonathan Kiefer of the film blog, The Faster Times, quips: It gives clues, telling us, “Pay attention to that guy, whose name will ring a bell,” or “Don’t trust this guy; he’s very bald, and he speaks French.”

For a film that sounds as though it should have such depths of emotion, for me, it lacked heart. It lacked the spirit of Robin Hood I was waiting to see played out in front of me. It lacked the fun. I guess they were going for a recessionist, depressing feel: TAXATION! TAXATION! NO TAXATION! NO TAXATION! And, of course, Robin Longstride throws in this line: An Englishman’s home IS his castle!

I think that they tried to play the Robin-Hood-as-real-man-Robin-Longstride angle too much. Robin Hood is made up. He’s a legend. Why? Because he brought hope and comfort and mischief and delight to a people oppressed. That’s what I was going in to see. As one commenter on Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog Looking Closer says, this movie is the” Totally Made-Up Story That We Produced Hoping to make Millions and Millions of Dollars, to Heck with the Legend.”

Although the battle scenes were beautiful, and there were some nice camera angles and shots, overall, I was disappointed when the credits rolled. (Which, by the way, were very inventive and aesthetically pleasing.) I wanted to see what happened once Robin Hood is named an outlaw and tyrannical King John denies the people the signing of what seems to be the Magna Carta, which he actually goes on to sign in 1215.

Although fun in terms of an action movie, I didn’t leave the theatre with a sense of satisfaction or Yea! The bad guys always lose when Robin of the Hood is around! sort of feeling. I’m all for the examination of the psychological depth and background of characters, but here, Ridley Scott, I wanted some fun and vengeance. I got neither.

** There are several memorable moments when the slow-mo camera action zooms in on Russell Crowe’s face as he bellows: NOOOOOO!!!! I literally laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate came out when I was 9, so I didn’t pick it up right away. 🙂 However, the name has always stuck with me and resurfaced when I looked at one of my favorite blogs a couple of months ago. Sotto Il Monte Vineyards is a beautiful blog with photography, food, architecture, and decor, so when I saw this post in January, I added the book to my list. I got it at the library Monday afternoon and read it yesterday evening.

Told in one-month episodes by the great-granddaughter of the main character, each chapter/month begins with a recipe and is the story of a family of women, Mama Elena, Gertrudis, Rosaura, and Tita, living on the Mexican-American border. Mama Elena is a hard woman, raising three daughters on her own on a ranch in Mexico with help only from a woman housekeeper, Nacha. Tita, her third daughter is born

on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and , of course, onion….The way Nacha told it, Tita was literally washed into this world on a great tide of tears that spilled over the edge of the table and flooded across the kitchen floor.

Tita’s kitchen birth gives her a special affinity to the kitchen and food. Her tears are supposedly because as the youngest in this family, she is expected to remain single and to care for her mother until one of the two dies. However, Pedro, a neighboring young man, loves Tita, and Tita loves Pedro. Her mother refuses to allow the marriage, so in order to be close to the woman he loves, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister Rosaura. (Are you groaning? Yes, it’s a horrible idea.) The story follows with the clandestine love of the two, the volatile relationship between Tita and her mother, and the dynamics of this matriarchal household.

Tita’s love of the kitchen is what moves the story along, and Tita, in true magical realism, cooks her soul into her dishes. At the marriage of Pedro and Rosaura, Tita prepares a multi-course dinner, culminating with the cake. Tita cries as she makes the icing, and

The moment [the guests] took their first bite of the cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave of longing….But the weeping was just the first symptom of a strange intoxication – an acute attack of pain and frustration – that seized the guests and scattered them across the patio and the grounds and in the bathrooms, all of them wailing over lost love.

In turns sad, joyous, sensual, frustrating, and angering, Like Water for Chocolate was an enjoyable read. I particularly enjoy magical realism* and Mexican/Hispanic stories. The translation by Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen is excellent, and I look forward to watching the movie.

* If you have read this or are curious about magical realism, I highly recommend Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. It is an absolutely epic familial tale with magical realism galore. It’s one of my favorite books.