Surprised by the End Results
Isabel Allende’s route from start to finish is a circuitous one in her books, including her latest.
Author Isabel Allende starts every book on Jan. 8. Her latest book uses Brooklyn during an epic snowstorm at the setting.
Photo by Lori Barra
Chilean-American author Isabel Allende has three homes.
First and foremost is her native land, Chile; followed by her adoptive U.S. home, the Bay Area and Marin County specifically. Allende became a U.S. citizen in 1993, and in her second home has lived most of her adult life, raised a family, and written the 23 books that have sold nearly 70 million copies worldwide. Lauded for her books’ magical realism, fearlessly sensual, warm, soulful storytelling, and her dedicated work ethic, Allende’s literary works extend to adaptation in musicals, opera, ballets, theater, and cinema. A nonprofit, The Isabel Allende Foundation founded in 1996, honors her daughter, Paula Frias, who contracted a rare disease, fell into a yearlong coma, and died at age 29. The foundation supports charitable organizations that offer humanitarian assistance and education to women and girls, primarily in Chile and California.
But arguably, no place is as natural a fit as Allende’s third home: any location with a writing surface or tool. Years ago, that meant her first novel was written at the kitchen counter, surrounded by the hubbub of her family. She wrote her second in a cleared-out closet using a board propped up with boxes. Most recently, a private, quiet writing oasis is the position from which the 75-year-old Allende wrote her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (Atria, October 2017). The story brings together an improbable cast of characters, setting them in a Brooklyn brownstone during an epic snowstorm.
Richard Bowmaster is a 60-year-old NYU professor who is landlord and boss to the similar age Chilean visiting academic Lucia Maraz and her sidekick Chihuahua, Marcelo. Evelyn Ortega, a young, undocumented Guatemalan refugee working as a domestic for a violent, troubled couple and their disabled son, enters the scene when Bowmaster rear-ends the Lexus she is driving—without permission from her employers. There’s a corpse in the trunk, a likely crime committed, a cover-up enacted.
Importantly, the somewhat conventional plot lines are only the skeleton through which rich, complex subjects are explored. Beyond obvious messages about the difficulty of immigration and refugees’ search for physical and psychological security in a new country, Allende investigates older age love and sexuality, natural versus man-made justice, memory, and deep-rooted histories. The last of these elements allows Allende to include not only her characters’ corrosive, failed marriages or tragic childhoods but also to reference favorite themes: real life loss due to political terrorism under the Nazis, Pinochet government, MS-13 gang, and other forces—and recovery from or despite deprivation.
Salvador Allende, her father’s cousin, was elected president of Chile in 1970. On Sept. 11, 1973, the dictator Augusto Pinochet seized power during a horrific CIA-backed military coup. Salvador Allende shot himself, choosing death over capture. In 1975, after seeing people disappear, the author fled with her husband and two young children from Chile to Venezuela. Having known firsthand the anxieties of a refugee, Allende has writing that frequently flows to fictional outsider stories filtered through real life history.
A quote by Albert Camus at the beginning of the book provides the title: “In the midst of winter, I finally found in me an invincible summer.”
“It started in Brooklyn during the holidays of 2015,” Allende said in a recent phone interview. It was mid-October and the author was on a book tour she called “grueling.” She begins all of her books on Jan. 8, the date in 1981 on which she began a letter to her dying grandfather that became her first novel. “We had rented a house. I had vague ideas: Someone said write about this brownstone. My daughter said write about refugees. The idea of mature love I connected to because I had ended a marriage of 28 years. I thought the rest of my life would be alone; there was a certain sadness.”
From sorrow came a fiery story prompted in no small part by President Donald Trump’s election and her thoughts on immigration. “I think this country is made great with immigrants. It is OK and welcome—if they look like Americans: the British, Jewish people, Scandinavians, others. But the problem of race has always been there. Chinese, Latinos, and other immigrants of color have never fit in, although they contribute more than they take and always have.”
Allende says people of color threaten Trump and his supporters. “They say they take employment from Americans, but the jobs they take or took were in agriculture, not technology. They’re not jobs white Americans will take. Corporations are sending those jobs abroad. Who could imagine we could have Trump as a president? But we do because he picks up on [underyling racism]. After he’s gone, I hope American democracy will recover and be undamaged.”
On tour, people most often ask about or tell their immigration stories, she said. “At one event, a woman said she was undocumented and had read the book in a detention prison. From that, you know the story in the book is true: It’s a real, human story that happens all the time,” she said.
Although she said she identifies repeated themes that appear in her novels—loyalty, violence, love, absent fathers, strong women—Allende also said she is always surprised by the end results. Intending to write about the pirates of the Caribbean long before the popular series of movies were made, her research left her asking, “Why does New Orleans have a French flavor?” The answers revealed the impact 3,000 imported slaves had on the city of 10,000 people.
“I think I’m heading one direction, then I wound up writing a book entirely in another direction,” she said, about the 2010 novel, Island Beneath the Sea.
Writers, she said, are not obligated to have a social or political cause. “For me, the books I write are about relationships, connection. That’s also what the foundation is about. I’ll give you examples. Without the foundation, I would only know about immigration in the abstract. Where do I get the strong women I write about? I get strong women from the people I see in and through the foundation. I see models of strong women all the time: I don’t need to invent them.”
This story appeared in the January issue of our sister publication, The Monthly.