It’s a long time since I started to read a book with such high hopes. And I don’t think I’ve ever put one down, unfinished, with such a feeling of disappointment.
Why the optimism? Well, I’m sure everyone knows that Laura Esquivel is the author of the very successful “Like Water For Chocolate”, which became an even more successful movie. The novel sold 3 million copies in 30 languages. The movie won 11 awards. So I picked up her second novel in its paperback edition and, at first glance, found it a most attractive package. It comes with a compact disk which contains about 39 minutes of operatic arias and some Mexican pop music, which is meant to accompany parts of the text. It even has half a dozen sections of rather dramatic artwork by Miguelanxo Prado, Spain’s foremost graphic artist. And it makes generous use of poetry, with a poem at the start of each chapter. I particularly liked the samples from Trece Poetas del Mundo Azteca. At first blush the complete package looks like a winner…..and all for $16 U.S.
Anyway, even though the story starts out calmly enough, by the time you reach chapter two, you’re in the middle of the wildest kind of fantasy, part new age and part sci-fi, complete with time travel, space travel, reincarnation, astrology and almost anything else you can imagine. The time span of the book stretches from the fall of Moctezuma to the 23rd century. The setting is Mexico City… or then again it might be The Garden of Eden or the planet Korma. The characters may be actual people…or they may be guardian angels, or demons. Or they may be someone who is going through her 14,000th reincarnation. The men may have been women earlier in the story, or women who used to be men. And, of course, there’s plenty of futuristic technology….like televirtuals (which plonk you right into the middle of ongoing events), photomental cameras, soul transplants (in case you REALLY want to change your identity), auraphotos, and so on.
Here’s what the web site has to say about the plot: “It’s a story of a passion that survives from Moctezuma’s empire to the 23rd century. Azucena is an “astroanalyst”, a sort of highly evolved psychotherapist, who ministers to the karmically challenged. As an enlightened soul, Azucena has finally caught the brass ring of reincarnation: she is allowed to meet her twin soul, her true love, Rodrigo. But after one night of supreme passion, the lovers are separated, and Azucena must search for Rodrigo across the galaxy and through 14,000 lives.”
No matter how much I might try, I couldn’t put it more succinctly than that.
At about the halfway point, when I was thoroughly confused and growing rather irritable with all these goings on, I took the coward’s way out and went into Amazon.com to see what the customers of my favorite bookstore were saying about all of this. It was a rather interesting visit. There are seven pages of reviews in there -more than I can ever recall seeing for any other book. Also, all the opinions are expressed in the most extreme terms.
On one hand, you have: “…romantic”, innovative, and wildly comic”. “A great book, not to be missed.” “Wonderful, wonderful!” “Explores love and humanity at the deepest level.” “A humorous look at the meaning of life.” “A multi-media experience of love.”
On the other hand you have: “A strain to finish”, “The author doesn’t care, so why should we?” “One of the worst books I’ve ever read.” “Sadly disappointing.” “A drag.” “Drivel.” “It stinks.” “Overly self conscious…hollow.” (Actually, I’m rather impressed with Amazon.com for publishing that many negative reviews.)
Okay…after all that…where does a karmically challenged reviewer like me stand? Well, I guess I have to say I’m a helluva lot closer to the “drivel” group than the “wonderful, wonderful!” people. I’m disappointed more than anything. Laura Esquivel can really write and she has an exuberant sense of humor and she looks lovely in the back cover photo. And I hate to say negative things about a lovely lady. I liked the first chapter, before she zoomed off into outer space and the sixth dimension. In it she was talking about two women in love with the same man. The man is Rodrigo, one of Cortes’s lieutenants. The women are Isabel, his Spanish wife and Citlali, his Aztec mistress, who is also the housemaid. Here’s how Esquivel describes relations between the two women.
“For a meeting to take place, two people must come together in the same space, but neither of these women inhabited the same house. Isabel continued to live in Spain, Citlali in Tenochtitlán. They had no way of ever meeting, much less communicating, for they did not speak the same language. Neither of them could recognize herself in the eyes of the other. They walked on the same paths, were warmed by the same sun, were awakened by the same birds, were caressed by the same hands and kissed by the same lips; yet they found not a single point of contact…”
What a pity someone who can write like that should squander her talents so wildly. When you write, you need discipline… perhaps even more so when you write science-fiction or new age, or when you try (heaven forbid!) to put The Celestine Prophecy into fictional form, which is what one of those Amazon.com reviewers thought was happening. It’s hard to find much sense of discipline in this book.
I liked the many pages of artwork, but they didn’t really match the story line. For me, the illustrations had a dated look to them, as though they were depicting past events, which worked against all that futuristic skittering back and forth through time and space. But the poems were nice, especially the samples from Trece Poetas del Mundo Azteca.
The CD is pleasant listening, but it’s very much of this day and age. You can easily find the same music on hundreds of radio stations. However, and, even though I know I’ll never read the book again, I’m quite happy to add the CD to my collection.
I’m not completely ready to give up on Laura Esquivel yet. However, next time I won’t shell out the $16 until after I’ve read the reviews in Amazon.com and elsewhere.
Verdict: Approach with extreme caution.