I like reading novels about food — the foodie in me relishes reading about food almost as much as feasting on the real thing. Sometimes the words are even better, because they always taste good in the imagination, as opposed to a dish that makes your mouth water as you read the menu but falls flat when you take the first bite.
This weekend, by chance, I read two foodie novels: The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris, and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (books # 111 and 112 of 2009, and LWFC for the Diversity Challenge- Latin American).
The two novels are no strangers to me — The Lollipop Shoes is the sequel to Chocolat, which I read last year, and Like Water for Chocolate is a book I first read back in sophomore year in high school, when we discussed Latin American literature.
The Lollipop Shoes (US title: The Girl with no Shadow) picks up a few years after Chocolat. Vianne Rocher is now known as Yanne Charbonneau, and together with her daughters Anouk (now known as Annie) and Rosette, she settles into a new community in the hopes of a peaceful, normal life. She opens a small chocolate shop, which sells commercial chocolate, and none of the chocolate treats she used to make herself. Yanne is also thinking of settling down with Thierry Le Tresset, the landlord who has shown them much kindness.
The little family meets the mysterious Zozie de l’Alba, who helps out at the shop and turns it around, inspiring Vianne to whip up her chocolate confections once again, and helps Anouk stand up to the girls who have been bullying her at school. But beneath the cheery veneer, Zozie de l’Alba is not what she seems, and as the story unfolds, her diabolical plan for the family is revealed.
I picked up this book because I wanted to know what happens to the characters after Chocolat, but even from the first book I wasn’t really sold on Joanne Harris’ writing (even though I have like, 5 more of her books in my TBR). I was expecting so much more from Chocolat because I heard a lot of people say they love the film (and no I haven’t seen it), but the book was lukewarm for me. Nothing spectacular.
I was intrigued by the premise of The Lollipop Shoes, but as I read it, I realized it was much like Chocolat, except with a more complicated plot (making it twice as long as Chocolat) and a good witch bad witch showdown. I liked that Roux (the hot red-headed gypsy dude) returns in this novel, and the ending (the last two pages) was satisfying, but getting there wasn’t very smooth and was challenging to follow.
I lived for the chocolatey passages for most of the book, but even those I found lacking, like when Yanne makes truffles:
“First comes the melting and tempering of the raw couverture: that process which enables it to leave its crystalline state and take on the glossy, malleable form necessary to make chocolate truffles. She does it all on a granite slab, spreading out the melted chocolate like silk and gathering it back towards her with a spatula. Then it goes back into the warm copper, the process to be repeated until she declares it done.
She rarely uses the sugar thermometer. She has been making chocolates for so long, she tells me, that she can simply sense when the correct temperature has been reached. I believe her; certainly for the past three days I have been watching her, she has never produced a less than flawless batch. During that time, I have learnt to observe with a critical eye: to check for streaks in the finished product; for the unappealing pale bloom that denotes incorrectly tempered chocolate; for the high gloss and sharp snap that are the indicators of good-quality work.”
But you can’t get a whiff of the scent that wafts from the melting chocolate, and you can’t taste the flavors are playing around in the glossy mixture. It’s chocolate — it wouldn’t take much effort to make it appear palatable, but Harris tends to describe the physical and not the sensual, which makes it hard for the foodie reader to savor the words.
Meanwhile, I am not a fan of magic realism but I liked Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua Para Chocolate), a Mexican bestseller subtitled: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies. I don’t remember anything of my first reading of the book back when I was thirteen, and I don’t suppose I fully understood it then, other than Tita’s emotions being transmitted into the food she prepared.
Like Water for Chocolate is a novel about food, family, love, and life.
In rich Mexican families, the youngest daughter traditionally stays unmarried to care for the mother until the end of her days. Tita de la Garza is trapped by this tradition, rendering her helpless as her sweetheart marries her sister.
Tita also happens to be a talented chef, instinctively embracing the kitchen she practically grew up in with Nacha, the cook who treated her more like a daughter than her mother ever did. And when the fierce Mama Elena forces Tita to cater the food for her sister’s wedding, Tita’s bitter tears drop into the wedding cake batter, and everyone who partook of the cake at the wedding felt an overwhelming sense of misery.
The novel is divided into twelve months, each providing a recipe that is incorporated within the story and each eliciting a reaction that sets events in motion. I love the novel for its inventiveness, and the way Tita’s feelings and memories are linked with the food, and how fluidly it all comes together. The food is really at the heart of this novel, and you can feel it, hear it, smell it, and taste it, as if you’re in the kitchen with Tita as she labors over a dish.
I especially like how she associates her life’s memories with food, because it reminds me of Comfort Food (the book I read for the FFP book discussion) and as she prepares the recipes the way it has always been prepared by the de la Garza family, you can feel the reverence for tradition that is a major theme in the book.
My personal favorite chapters are March (Quail in Rose Petal Sauce), which was a great fun to read as the dish unleashes Gertrudis’ passion; and June (A Recipe for Making Matches) because it’s sad and tender and insightful, and I like John Brown’s philosophy:
“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves… Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs is what nourishes the soul… If one doesn’t find out what will set off those explosions, the box of matches dampes, and not a single match will ever be lighted.
If that happens, the soul flees from the body and goes to wander among the deepest shades, trying in vain to find food to nourish itself, unaware that only the body it left behind, cold and defenseless, is capable of providing that food.”
I also like the humor of the novel, which is remarkable, considering how miserable the actual plot is. And while I’m still not a fan of magic realism, I like how it was used in the novel and enjoyed the book because of it.
My copies: The Lollipop Shoes, trade paperback, mooched from the UK; Like Water for Chocolate, hardcover with dustjacket, mooched from the US
My rating: The Lollipop Shoes, 3/5 stars; Like Water for Chocolate, hardcover with dustjacket, 4/5 stars
*cover photo from sxc.hu