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‘Like Water for Chocolate’ author has new novel

Esquivel’s ‘La Malinche’ is a similarly romantic quick read
/ Source: The Associated Press

Laura Esquivel, known for the delicious fantasy "Like Water for Chocolate," is all about cycles.

On this day, it's the cycles of passion, liberation and love in her new novel, "La Malinche," about the slave who became the voice of the Spanish conquest.

Yet as she speaks, her halo of silver hair bouncing above intense dark eyes, it's hard not to flash to the cycles of Esquivel's own life, which echo those of her novel.

Esquivel, who grew up in a small suburb of Mexico city, was a kindergarten teacher and a TV writer before she shot to fame in the late 1980s with "Like Water for Chocolate." The passionate tale of unrequited love became an international best seller and later one of the highest-grossing foreign films ever released in the United States, ushering in a new era in Mexican cinema.

That success — the book sold 4.5 million copies, nearly half in the United States — was hard to match. And it was accompanied by a public divorce from the film's director and Esquivel's creative partner, Alfonso Arau, and lawsuits filed by both over film profits, defamation and fraud.

Esquivel eventually remarried and remained popular in Latin America, but her follow-up works, such as 1995's "The Law of Love," received little attention in the United States. She also helped found a Mexican movie production company with filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, who directed the blockbuster 2004 movie, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." But Esquivel left the film company after realizing she preferred the freedom of the literary world.

This spring marks a new cycle for Esquivel with the release of her first novel in nearly five years and with a new publisher, Simon & Schuster's Atria Books. Esquivel and Arau have even made up, and the two are looking to collaborate on another film that could prove to be the long-awaited follow to "Like Water for Chocolate."

"It was very liberating," Esquivel says about rekindling a relationship with Arau, which came after she finally received belated royalties for her screenplay of the film. "We have always worked well together. I respect him as an editor, and he respects me as a writer."

Her new book, "La Malinche," follows the relationship between La Malinche, or Malinalli as she is called in the book, and Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez, who uses Malinalli as his translator in his quest to overthrow the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and then tosses her aside after conquering Mexico. Hurt and disillusioned, Malinalli discovers true love with Cortez's lieutenant and eventually even forgives Cortez.

Like her previous books, "La Malinche" is full of love and longing, with the same plain language that makes for a quick read but at times betrays the author's origins in television.

The book is also something new for Esquivel, serving as a political and historical text. As Cortez's translator, La Malinche has often been called the ultimate traitor, yet her role in Mexican history is more nuanced, Esquivel maintains.

"She is a person who we have yet to judge fairly," Esquivel says, adding that it wasn't hard to imagine why La Malinche helped Cortez. It was about cycles.

For the Aztecs, "there were always cycles that ended, and then came a struggle and a new cycle," Esquivel says. "A woman, in this time, being a slave, would have hoped that a change was coming."

Atria publisher Johanna Castillo compares "La Malinche" to "Like Water for Chocolate."

"Both bring the Mexican culture alive, and both are love stories. But this work has a lot more history behind it," she says.

Castillo believes the book will mark a renewed success in the United States for Esquivel, whose previous two novels languished on the shelves. Her second novel, "The Law of Love," the sci-fi story of psychotherapist who ministers to the karmically challenged came out in 1995 replete with a CD of arias to be played along with the text. The new-age themes combined with a pre-MP3-world, didn't go over well with English speaking fans.

Her third book, "Swift as Desire," a more traditional love-story, followed the stormy marriage of a struggling telegraph operator and his beautiful wife. Although it had a compelling story, if somewhat flat prose, it had the misfortune of being released in the days immediately after 9/11.

Esquivel is still wistful about that book, which she dedicated to her father, a telegraph operator who instilled in Esquivel a love of literature with his romantic and fanciful tales.

This time, Atria is launching a major U.S. publicity tour that began in February with trips to Puerto Rico and Miami for the release of the Spanish version. The English version, and its accompanying tour, is scheduled for May.

And just in case the book is not enough to generate a new cycle of buzz for Esquivel, there is always her potential collaboration with Arau. Their proposed project is a biopic of the life of Argentinean tango star Carlos Gardel, set in 1930s Paris.

It will, of course, be a love story.