PRAY FOR THE novelist whose first book is a hit. If it's translated into 30 languages, made into a hugely popular film, and wins national awards, pray a little harder. No one is under greater pressure when she sits down to write her next book. Apparently Laura Esquivel, author of 1990's Like Water for Chocolate, is a ballsy soul: Her new novel, The Law of Love, is not just another crack at eating up lots of bookstore shelf space; it constitutes a literary high dive into multimedia.
In case you haven't read the book, seen the movie, or bought the action figures, Like Water for Chocolate is a fantastical tale of forbidden amor set on a hacienda during the Mexican revolution, mingling Catholicism with mysticism, and carnal hunger with culinary indulgence. I loved it, but not for the beauty of its words or even the depth of its characters. Whether it was Esquivel's or the translator's fault, that novel's language fell short of the story; I felt I was being described a story rather than told one. This wasn't a fatal flaw, but it did mean the difference between great fun and great literature.
So I didn't read The Law of Love with a lot of expectations. As with her debut, Esquivel makes action the focus here, but whether or not this story holds up, much less triumphs, is debatable. It has a totally ridiculous plot, first of all: Magic realism collides with science fiction, betraying Esquivel's infatuations--which are not with food this time, but technology.
It's the 23rd century. Home security systems recognize people's auras. Everyone knows about their past lives through "astroanalysis," and because music's hypnotic powers have been recognized, it's a controlled substance. There are machines to read one's thoughts, and there are Plantspeakers, devices which allow houseplants to express themselves (I'd love to see this on film). TV means Televirtual, a device which places the viewer inside the picture--so when the Planetary President is shot, our heroine and hero awake to find a dead man lying in bed between them (another great scene for the screen).
Aerophoning is now the most common mode of travel around the solar system; it involves stepping into a booth, punching in a code, and instantly appearing at your destination. Still, a wrong number can land you in a stranger's bedroom at the wrong moment--after all, the world is still run by a bureaucracy, albeit one whose goals are nonviolence, peace, and spiritual growth for all.
Our heroine is Azucena, an astroanalyst who, after 14,000 lives, is ready to meet Rodrigo, her twin soul. But after an initial night of planet-tossing passion, the aforementioned assassination takes place and Rodrigo disappears. Mad with frustration, Azucena sets out to find him, but inadvertently becomes enmeshed in the evil plots of presidential candidate Isabel Gonzalez. In addition to the voices of earthly characters, monologues from Azucena's guardian angel offer a voice of motherly reason, while the demon that drives Isabel is adorably rotten.
We're definitely not on la hacienda anymore.
Esquivel, perhaps aware of the dangers of translation, makes room for the multimedia part of her project with lots of illustrations and a music CD. Each time a character has a past-life regression, we are cued to listen to a track on the CD and follow along with the dreamy story-paintings of Miguelanxo Prado. Most of the music is Puccini arias, although in between sections a wry, melodramatic songstress named Liliana Felipe--probably the greatest discovery The Law of Love has to offer--provides "intermissions for dancing."
Surely other writers have wished they could add music and art to their novels, but figured it would be logistically problematic, if not a literary cop-out. Maybe Esquivel doesn't believe herself capable of writing a convincing dream sequence with all the power of Puccini; maybe she's right. For my part, I found it damned awkward to get up and turn on the stereo every 20 minutes or so (not to mention remember to hit "pause" at the end of the track, so as to preserve the illusion of the next dream). And though the arias are spectacular, they seem awfully, well, Italian for a novel about Mexico City.
While I'm niggling, I might add that I felt nothing for Rodrigo but vague resentment (he's a bit of a fool). And that Esquivel invents some rather preposterous conceits, even for sci-fi, to get her characters out of jams (soul transplants are quite the fad in the underworld). And that she overshoots her mark so that at the end, it isn't terribly clear what just happened. In spite of all this, I enjoyed The Law of Love, if only because Esquivel has one of the most fertile--and cinematic--imaginations around. If I were her guardian angel, I'd tell her that her true brilliance lies in screenwriting.