8 Novels That Celebrate the Culture and the Beaches of Mexico

8 Novels That Celebrate the Culture and the Beaches of Mexico

Tuesday, 31 December, 2019

Novels set in Mexico share several common characteristics: multigenerational family sagas, lives torn asunder by war, stories heightened by magical realism, and tales of travelers with dream vacations on their minds, who suddenly find themselves trapped in a thriller, murder mystery, or horror story.

The books we’ve recommended here span genres and cover various locations in Mexico, including an interior border town, Mexico City, Cancun, a locals-only beach, and Cabo San Lucas. You’ll meet endearingly difficult family members, monsters (human and otherwise), intrepid heroines, and some margarita-drinking tourists who — to be honest — kinda get what they have coming.

To hear us discuss some of these books and more about what makes Mexico a must-visit destination, listen to our podcast Mexico: Folklore and Beachy Paradise.


Gods of Jade and Shadow - Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow
> Silvia Moreno-Garcia

What would you do if your daydreams suddenly came true, but not at all in the way you imagined? That’s just what happens to our heroine — 18-year-old Casiopea Tun — when the Mayan god of death appears to her unexpectedly and, in exchange for a favor, promises her everything her heart desires.

Casiopea, a Cinderella-esque poor relation, is doomed to fetch, carry, and clean for her domineering grandfather; meanwhile, her useless, weaselly, fawning older cousin Martin subjects her to daily abuse and waits to inherit the family estate. One afternoon, left at home alone as punishment while the rest of the household enjoys a family outing, she accidentally awakens the spirit of Hun-Kamé, the Mayan god of death. Before she quite understands what’s happening, she’s agreed to help him on his quest to reclaim his throne from his villainous brother.

Their Jazz Age odyssey takes them from the jungles of the Yucatán Peninsula to the city of Merída, and then on to Veracruz, Mexico City, Tijuana, the beaches of Baja California, and finally, into the gloom of the Mayan underworld. Although Casiopea does eventually cool her heels in the Pacific Ocean, her dreams don’t come true in the way she expected. And this perilous undertaking not only has consequences for her — it could doom or save the entire world. {more}

Somewhere, far from the bothersome grandfather and impertinent coterie of relatives, there would be sleek automobiles (she wished to drive one), daring pretty dresses (which she’d spotted in newspapers), dances (the faster, the better), and a view of the Pacific sea at night (she knew it courtesy of a stolen postcard). She had cut out photos of all these items and placed them under her pillow, and when she dreamed, she dreamed of night swimming, of dresses with sequins, and of a clear, starlit sky. — Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter - Erika L. Sánchez

Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was her sister Olga’s role — but Olga is dead. And now, Julia is left to grapple with her own grief and the role she plays in her newly fractured family.

This coming-of-age story plunges us deep into Mexican family culture, with action taking place in the United States and Mexico. In the wake of her sister’s death, Julia also experiences her first romance, a changing relationship with her grief-stricken — and in her grief, hyper-critical — mother, and her desire to see the exciting places beyond her life of tortillas and tias.

The prose is poignant and laugh-out-loud funny as Julia struggles to prove who she’s not, and ends up going around the back way to find out who she is. Along the way, she uncovers family secrets — some heart-breaking, some illuminating — that help her understand her place in the world. {more}

I smile and say, thank you, because the rudest thing you can do to a Mexican lady is refuse her food—might as well spit on a picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe or turn the TV off during Sábado Gigante. — Erika L. Sánchez

Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate
> Laura Esquivel

Food, love, and appetite color this luscious family saga set in a Mexican border town around 1900. This intimate story of one family is played out against the dramatic backdrop of the Mexican Revolution.

Wistful and full of magic, the tale reads like a legend that’s been passed down through generations, and it centers on the forbidden love of Tita and Pedro. As the youngest daughter, it’s Tita’s fate to forsake love and to care for her domineering mother, Mama Elena, until her mother’s death. But Tita and Pedro fall madly in love. When Tita felt Pedro’s gaze on her, ‘she understood exactly how raw dough must feel when it comes into contact with boiling oil.’

To be close to her, Pedro marries Tita’s older sister, and no one’s life remains untouched by this flawed decision.

Tita spends her days in the kitchen, both her gift and her curse. The food she prepares is infused with deep emotion and magical powers. Her tears, bitterly wept into the batter of a wedding cake, induce a devastating sense of longing in the guests who take a bite. A delicate sauce made of rose petals inspires incendiary passions around the dinner table.

This is an enchanting and sorrowful story of family obligation, the things that feed us, and a desire that cannot be extinguished. {more}

Tita knew through her own flesh how fire transforms the elements, how a lump of corn flour is changed into a tortilla, how a soul that hasn’t been warmed by the fire of love is lifeless, like a useless ball of corn flour. — Laura Esquivel

The Ruins - Scott B. Smith

The Ruins
> Scott Smith

This is a straight-up horror novel, and it won’t be for everyone, but if you like creepy happenings and don’t mind graphic gross-outs, this book is a lot of fun. Two young-and-hot couples are on a vacation together in Cancun. It’s going exactly as you’d expect: There’s plenty of lounging on the beach, drinking too much, waking up with hangovers, and becoming new besties with the other tourists. When the brother of one of their new pals goes missing, they make the colossally bad decision to leave their resort hotel for an excursion into the jungle. Amid the relentlessly green foliage and oppressive heat, they stumble onto something inexplicable… and horrible. The story is about the terror of what’s happening to them. But it’s also about personal character and the ways that a stressful situation can amplify personalities.

It also has something to say about treating indigenous peoples’ monuments and ruins as a tourist playground. Respect, people; think about it.

This page-turner is very entertaining and, in some passages, super creepy and disgusting — but the ick-factor is all in service of the story. This is an unusual combination of probing character study and the bookish version of a middle-of-the-summer popcorn flick. {more}

Try to be like an animal. Like a dog. Rest when you have the chance. Eat and drink if there’s food and water. Survive each moment. That’s all. — Scott B. Smith

Sea Monsters - Chloe Aridjis

Sea Monsters
> Chloe Aridjis

This dreamy book tells the story of teenage Luisa, a girl caught between two worlds in Mexico City of the 1980s: her ritzy school (where she’s a scholarship student) and her neighborhood that’s still reeling from the 1985 earthquake. The action takes off when Luisa sets off on a quest: She’s going on the hunt for a troupe of Ukrainian dwarves who have defected from a Russian circus traveling along the Mexican coast.

Her companion on this adventure is her sort-of boyfriend Tomás, skinny, pale, moody, a little older than she — the perfect blank slate around which teenage girls’ dreams are formed. The two leave the city for Zipolite, a beach town in Oaxaca. You might say ‘things don’t go as planned,’ but that would imply they had a plan beyond merely getting away.

This book has a tangible setting and atmosphere, although the beach feels more like the end of the world than a tropical paradise. When the search for the dwarves begins, it seems whimsical, but the story slowly takes on a feeling of listlessness.

The off-balance feeling beautifully captures the adolescent sense that everything and everyone is wrapped in gauze, seen through a haze — and then, suddenly, there is a moment of almost painful clarity and brightness. {more}

The main effect of listening to the Smiths was, obviously, a spike in longing, a longing for whatever one didn’t have in life and perhaps never would. — Chloe Aridjis

Fields’ Guide to Abduction - Julie Mulhern

Fields' Guide to Abduction
> Julie Mulhern

This is your quintessential beach read: a straight-up action-adventure story — set in Cabo San Lucas — with a heroine who can outrun the baddest of bad guys while wearing a slinky dress and high heels.

Poppy Fields — yes, that’s her actual birth name — is a bit of a wreck. She’s almost always in conflict with her actress mother; she’s got an unhealthy addiction to her on-again, off-again boyfriend; and her days are spent aimlessly doing not much at all.

The book opens when Poppy wakes up, hungover, with her passed-out boyfriend at her side. As she collects her clothes and shoes, she swears to herself that this is the last time: she’ll never sleep with him again. It turns out she’s right because he’s dead.

To recover from the shock, she accepts an invitation to attend the opening of a lavish, sexy resort for beautiful people in Cabo. But when she arrives, things go quickly from bad to worse: Bodies are dropping all over the beach.

As Poppy investigates — because, why not?! — she discovers depths in her own character that she didn’t know she had. She’s transformed into a badass right before our eyes. {more}

James was so deeply in the closet, he had one foot in Narnia. — Julie Mulhern

Caramelo - Sandra Cisneros

> Sandra Cisneros

This is a sweeping, multi-generational family saga that vividly recreates family life in Mexico City, Chicago, and San Antonio, Texas. Its story of one eventful summer — and the ripple effects of the aftermath — explores how family mythology is created from love and loss and lies and secrets.

This tale is carefully woven together to tell stories within stories that spiral and twist into intricate patterns as a web does — and as families do. Its focus is on our heroine and narrator Lala Reyes and the members of her extended family.

When we meet Lala, she’s gearing up for the boisterous family’s annual road trip from Chicago to Mexico City. She is a sharp observer, and we see the places she visits — Mexico City, Chicago, San Antonio — with precise and delighted attention to detail.

There’s a touch of magical realism— and the characters often have a loose relationship with the truth — so the individual stories within the narrative take on the sheen of fairy tales. As Lala matures, she comes to see how the women in her life cling to their past hurts and resentments like heirlooms. To break out of this family curse, Lala must understand how the people she loves became the people that they are. {more}

The Circus Garibaldi consisted of a zebra-striped mule hauling an ancient oxcart overloaded with canvas backdrops of airplanes, madonnas, and invented Tibetan landscapes. The company included a lady photographer, a Mayan family of acrobatic clowns, a gypsy accordionist/percussionist, a dancing raccoon that told fortunes, and the singer Pánfila Palafox. The day they arrived you could not speak without the melodramatic accompaniment of the wind. — Sandra Cisneros

Girls’ Night Out - Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Girls' Night Out
> Liz Fenton, Lisa Steinke

This is an astute study of complicated female friendships disguised as a beachy thriller, and you won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough because you must. know. what. happened. The story begins with the introduction of three women: Ashley, Natalie, and Lauren. They’ve been friends for 20 years, and though their friendship is cemented with shared memories, it’s also infected with past grievances.

They decide that a boozy trip to Tulum might be just the thing to heal the wounds in their relationships. Spoiler: It is not. From the first moments of their vacation — when they peer pressure each other into drinking margaritas and desperately flirt with the bartender — the old tensions are right there.

After a few tense days together, they embark on a painfully determined girls’ night out. Ashley goes missing, and Natalie wakes up on the beach the next morning, just a few yards from her hotel room, soaking wet and unable to remember anything from the night before.

In addition to reveling in train-wreck characters, this book does a brilliant job capturing the contradictory elements of Tulum: the crystal-gazing, hippy-dippy mysticism; its awesome beauty and perfect beaches; the connection to the past via the Mayan ruins; the endless cocktails; and the seductive notion that you can escape real life for a while.

This is a tense story about mildly terrible people making epically bad decisions. Like a perfectly salted tortilla chip with a tequila chaser, it’s irresistible. {more}

Waves lapped against the shore. It sounded as if the sea were breathing. In and out. In and out. — Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

Got a favorite book set in Mexico? Tell us in comments!

Top image courtesy of Mike Scheid.

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