For the first round of our Battle of the Broken Hearts, I read Like Water for Chocolate and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Both books involve multiple generations of Hispanic families, love, family drama, and a dose of magical realism.
In turn-of-the-century Mexico, Mama Elena tells Tita that, as the youngest daughter, Tita may never marry and must take care of Mama Elena until the day she dies. This does not stop Tita from falling for Pedro, who is pressured into marrying Tita’s older sister. But Tita’s skill in the kitchen imbues her dishes with deeply felt emotions that spread to the characters who eat them, with unexpected results.
Like Water for Chocolate is for the sensualist in each of us. Esquivel writes sparsely; like a poem, a bible passage or a fairytale, every word matters. When Esquivel does add a touch of detail, it is to delight our senses with descriptions of irresistible smells, tastes, looks and touches. I must admit to skimming the actual recipes in the book (blech, cooking!) but I loved the kitchen as an extension of Tita’s heart and a space where family tradition and history is passed through the generations. This was a quick, enjoyable read.
Oscar de León is the antithesis of Dominican masculinity: overweight, nerdily obsessed with sci-fi/fantasy novels, always desperately in love and always rejected and alone. Díaz shifts his story between characters close to Oscar to tell a multi-generational tale of love, politics, family curses, survival and death.
I felt warmly ushered into the tastes and traditions of turn-of-the-century Mexico in Like Water for Chocolate. But I felt challenged to meet the Trujillo regime era Dominicans and contemporary US Dominican immigrants in Oscar Wao exactly where they were. A lot of this feeling stemmed from the large amount of Spanish that Díaz weaves into Oscar Wao. I could constantly look words up, shout at my fiancé for definitions, or read without interruption (but also without full comprehension). I liked Díaz’s choice from a literary, globalist standpoint; the effortless switch between Spanish and English defined the characters and overall narrative. Bilingual readers may find this clearly brilliant work all the more special and personal because of this choice. But I disliked it as a reader.
The Winner: Like Water for Chocolate