The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: A Novel

  • F. G. Haghenbeck
  • Atria Books
  • 352 pp.

A notebook found at the former home of the famous Mexican painter inspired this story, which incorporates food and art.

Reviewed by Andrea D. Cicero

In the former Mexico City home of the folkloric painter Frida Kahlo, the author F. G. Haghenbeck discovered a small black notebook filled with recipes for Day of the Dead offerings. It inspired his telling of her life story in his novel The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo. The artist herself, who was well known for her ethnic costumes, elaborate hair designs, eccentric habits and free-thinking spirit, would have enjoyed this fictional portrayal of her horrible, wonderful life.

Haghenbeck begins with the end in mind, literally: Frida on her deathbed, making preparations for her final offering to Death, whom she envisions as a veiled Godmother. Frida Kahlo cheated death many times in real life. As a young girl she lived through polio; at age 18 she was impaled by an iron railing in a devastating bus accident that, among other things, rendered her unable to have children; and she endured over 30 surgeries over her lifetime related to her various afflictions.

The author builds the story around an explanation for Frida’s real-life obsession with the Day of the Dead: After her bus accident, Frida leaves the corporeal world and meets the veiled Godmother. She pleads for her life, and agrees in return to honor the Godmother every year on the Day of the Dead. The Godmother agrees, but warns Frida of the many troubles that lie ahead ahead for her.

Throughout the story, Frida consults and adds recipes to her notebook, which she refers to as “The Hierba Santa Book.” She uses the international language of food not only to pay respects to her veiled Godmother but also to connect with people in her life, including her womanizing husband, the famed Mexican muralist and political activist Diego Rivera; her sisters and family; peers such as fellow artists and writers Georgia O’Keefe, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway; political figures such as Nelson Rockefeller and Leon Trotsky; and her many lovers. Food was one of Frida’s most powerful tools. It could serve as a form of honor, could help develop relationships, keep her husband faithful, seduce someone, close a deal or mend a wounded heart. Each chapter of the book concludes with a recipe relevant to that particular period of her life.

The author draws on Frida Kahlo’s vast catalog of paintings as a basis for recreating the events in her life and her feelings. For example, imagery from the painting “Henry Ford Hospital” (1932) provides an avenue to discussing the miscarriage of Frida’s unborn son while the couple lived in Detroit — a period when she desperately wanted to become a mother. That loss of their child was a pivotal turning point in Frida and Diego’s relationship. After unsuccessful spinal surgery in 1946, Frida depicts herself in the painting “The Wounded Deer” as a stag, with a horned head atop a body that’s been pierced with arrows.

Her painting, critics assert, became an expression of Frida’s grappling with her pain and frustrations. Haghenbeck presents the deer painting as the result of one of Frida’s morphine-induced hallucinations, in which where she is visited by her faithful companion, a rooster, who symbolizes her time on earth. The rooster refers to her as a little deer that “wanted to go running through a forest full of owls and radishes … she wanted to be free again, but the arrows had hit their mark and felled her.”

Recipe by recipe, painting by painting, combined with historical accounts and insights gleaned from the painter’s journal and personal effects, Haghenbeck weaves together Frida Kahlo’s complicated life with vivid imagery. I found that each chapter left me wanting to know more about the real Frida, which led me to review her catalog of works and seek more information about her life. Anyone with an interest in Frida Kahlo, modern art, Mexican culture, the history of Communism, feminism or modern thinkers should find this book a delightful read.

Although the author’s deceptively simple writing style makes the pages move quickly, some of the dialogue, particularly between Frida and her female lovers, and the personal notes in “The Hierba Santa Book” seem at times contrived. But is this the author’s actual writing style or a reflection of the translation by Achy Obejas? Ironically, debate has surrounded the translation of several Spanish words and phrases in Frida Kahlo’s paintings, as has the final entry in her journal, which could be interpreted as a suicide note. The reader is left to decide the truth.

As for the recipes: Not noticing the very small print on the copyright page that warns readers that the dishes in the book are “meant to add flavor to the story, not to be made,” I decided to try one of the easier recipes, for Mexican Chicken Soup — something I order frequently in local Houston restaurants. I followed the recipe almost exactly as written, allowing minor license only on minor details like the manner of chopping the vegetables and what peppers to use (red vs. green). The recipe produced a colorful but pretty typical homemade chicken soup. The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: A Novel is much like that: It’s good, but it seemed to call for a bit more salt and pepper. (The publisher has included an appendix of more reliable selected recipes based on those in the book.)

Andrea D. Cicero is a native New Yorker who works as a geologist for the oil and gas industry in Houston, whose vibrant Mexican community has inspired her to learn Spanish, take Latin dance lessons and travel frequently to Mexico and Latin America. After reading this novel, she plans to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum on her next trip to Mexico City.

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