DNF review: The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F.G. Haghenbeck

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo

F.G. Haghenbeck

Translated from Spanish by Achy Obejas

368 pages

Published in September 2012 by Atria, an imprint of Simon and Schuster

Source: Publisher

            “Frida, if what you want is to show your respect, then you should make me an offering every year. I’ll gladly delight in the foods, flowers, and gifts you bring me. But I’m warning you now: you will always wish you’d died today. And I will remind you of this every day of your life.”

According to the author, Frida Kahlo owned a journal called The Hierba Santa Book. It was a small book that contained recipes for offerings on the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muetros).  After Kahlo’s death, the book was supposed to go on display at a museum but disappeared and hasn’t been found since. Creepy, right? The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo is the author’s reimagining Kahlo’s life, and how the artist came about filling the book with her recipes and thoughts.

I have to admit that I love reading about women who’ve lived incredible lives. Georgia O’Keefe, Ida B. Wells, Jane Goodall. . . it doesn’t matter. I’ve already read a few articles and Frida Kahlo’s diary, so when I heard about Atria Books giving away copies of F.G. Haghenbeck’s latest book, The Secret Life of Frida Kahlo, I had to sign up. Unfortunately, the book didn’t live up to my expectations.

One of the biggest things that work for this book is the magic realism element. Throughout the book, Kahlo has encounters with the Messenger, a helper of Death, ghosts, and Godmother Death herself. These encounters are believable. I was never tired of these encounters because they were believable, even when they seem a bit surreal.

What I did get tired of was Kahlo’s constant obsession with her husband, the muralist Diego Rivera. I know Kahlo and Rivera had a crazy marriage filled with affairs and even divorced and remarried but what I didn’t expect was the book to be mostly about Kahlo’s fixation on her husband. Once Kahlo marries Rivera, the book was about her suffering because of Rivera and his cheating ways. The book has so much angst; I could have mistaken it for YA. It became apparent to me that this wasn’t the book I was looking for when I reached page 200 and realized that the author mentioned Kahlo creating art about three times. This is a woman who’s famous for her paintings and style. Three times?

It made me wonder if the situation was reversed, would an author−any author−write a novel about Diego Rivera and mostly write about his chaotic marriage with Frida instead of his work? I doubt it.

I did like the effort that Haghenbeck puts into the book. At the back of the book, readers can find recipes inspired by Kahlo that the author created, but it wasn’t enough to keep me reading.

The story of the Kahlo’s missing book has so much potential but it wasn’t fulfilled in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo. My rating: 3 out of 5.

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12 thoughts on “DNF review: The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F.G. Haghenbeck

  1. Thanks for the honest review. She was a an amazing talent, and I agree, the book should have revolved around her artwork more than her troubled marriage. I watched a documentary on her and it was really interesting. She suffered so much! Have you seen the film Frida? I think Salma Hayek did a fantastic job, and the film centers around her work as well as her marriage.

  2. Sorry that this didn’t work for you. It’s sad when you go into a book expecting something, but get something totally different and unpleasant.

  3. OOoooo. VERY interesting. I find Ms Frida a fascinating character though my experience is almost totally confined in reading the Bio of her that the movie (ten years ago already?!) was based on and I thought all it was awesome. So your comments here ARE interesting and I trust you. To me, Frida was just one heck of a passionate woman who wanted –who dared — to feel and ‘experience’ and wow, did she.

    1. I agree, Care. She was such an amazing and gutsy person! That’s the Frida that I want to read about not a housewife who suffered so much over an unfaithful husband. There were more dimensions to her than just wife.

  4. That’s a common problem with Kahlo, and a lot of female surrealists actually. I know when I saw the film about her life I thought it focused on Rivera way too much. It was very nearly the Diego Rivera story. This book sounds even worse! I love the idea though. What a waste of inspiration.

  5. I’m sorry to hear that this book did not work out or you. I would have imagined likewise, that a book about an artist would be about her and her work? But Haghenbeck chose to focus on another aspect of her life entirely, namely the husband. Sounds like a missed opportunity…

  6. I love Frida Kahlo but I’ll pass on this one as well if it were that disappointing. I’m pretty sure it’ll disappoint me as well. I don’t mind angst if it were a true biography, but angst in a fictionalized one, however much based on a lot of truths, would still be grating on the nerves.

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