Translated from Spanish by Achy Obejas
Published in September 2012 by Atria, an imprint of Simon and Schuster
“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.