Isabel Allende’s latest work is a book suffering an identity crisis
The queen of magical realism’s latest is a book suffering an identity crisis.
Reading Isabel Allende’s latest novel, In the Midst of Winter, is rather like being told stories by the kind of aunt who swoops in from exotic locations and whose résumé includes nightclub singer and Resistance fighter. You listen at her feet, eyes wide, as she regales you with outlandish tales of romance and violence, but with such charm that you forgive all her narrative’s gaping flaws.
This book’s main flaw is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be: a commentary on America’s treatment of Southern and Central American immigrants, a reminder of that area’s brutal recent past, a study of characters coming to terms with trauma and loss, a love story or a murder mystery-cum-road trip. In trying to cram in every one of those aspects, it loses any semblance of narrative coherence, and only those readers who enjoy Allende’s engaging, witty style are likely to hang in there.
The main characters are Lucia Maraz, a 62-year-old Chilean academic, divorced
from an unsuitable husband, who now lives in a Brooklyn apartment owned by a fellow academic, Richard Bowmaster, whose anxious reclusiveness is a way of coping with a terrible incident in his past.
Into their lives comes Evelyn Ortega, a young escapee from gang-torn Guatemala, who works illegally as a caregiver in the house of an abusive man who, as the three discover, may also be a murderer.
The novel starts in the present, but soon rewinds to the backstories of all three characters, particularly Lucia’s and Evelyn’s. These chapters have interest and drama, but Allende rushes us through events in rather journalistic fashion, which deprives us of both narrative tension and intimacy with the characters.
And then what seems to be shaping up as a novel about gradual revelation leading to mutual affection and understanding suddenly veers into Fargo territory, and Lucia, Evelyn and Richard are on the road, trying to dispose of a dead body.
It’s as if Allende got bored with her characters being snowbound in Brooklyn and was happy to settle for even an implausible excuse to winkle them out. But the shift in tone is too jarring, and worse, the made-up violence undermines the serious message of the true brutality recounted before. We stop believing and caring, and that’s a shame, as this novel could have been excellent if Allende had kept us connected with reality.
IN THE MIDST OF WINTER, by Isabel Allende (Simon & Schuster, $39.99)
What seems to be shaping up as a novel about gradual revelation leading to mutual understanding suddenly veers into Fargo territory.
Isabel Allende: her novel could have been excellent if she had kept us connected with reality.