I am a longtime fan of the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, which was the first South American novel by a woman to be compared to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is her best book, or at least the one I love most, a family saga that traces three generations of a wealthy family through stormy personal conflicts and political upheavals in an unnamed country in South America. The patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, cannot control his wife and female progeny, who unswervingly follow their own paths. But as the years go by, he, too, is appalled by the violence of the new regime, and the family comes together. This utterly stunning novel is laced with magic realism, humor, and enchanting lyrical descriptions.
Allende is closely connected to her characters. A feminist journalist, she fled from Chile to Venezuela after her father’s cousin, Salvador Allende, the first socialist president, was assassinated in 1973. She considered herself a journalist and wrote her first novel when she was 40: The House of the Spirits was published in 1982. A few years later a book tour changed her life: in 1988 she met her future second husband and moved to California. She has won numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal for Freedom, awarded in 2014 by Barack Obama. And in 2019, she married her third husband, with whom she has discovered the joys of a relationship at a Certain Age.
I read her new memoir, The Soul of a Woman, in the hope of learning what was autobiographical in her fiction and what was pure imagination. Alas, it is not quite the book I sought, though it is excellent in its way. It is part feminist primer, part collection of charming anecdotes. The anecdotes are lively and entertaining, but this book is not very personal. She sketches the history of feminism, lectures us on smashing the patriarchy, writes vividly and indignantly about ageism, and speculates on the difference between free love and non-binary sexuality.
Yet Allende knows exactly where she’s going with this book: the first sentence establishes her theme, connecting her identity with feminist politics.
When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating. I was born in 1942, so we are talking remote antiquity. I believe that the situation of my mother, Panchita, triggered my rebellion against male authority. Her husband abandoned her in Peru with two toddlers in diapers and a newborn baby. Panchita was forced to return to her parents’ home in Chile, where I spent the first years of my childhood.
Such lovely writing! But soon she veers into politics. She becomes more explicit in her definition of feminism.
In my youth I fought for equality. I wanted to participate in the men’s game. But in my mature years I’ve come to realize that the game is a folly; it is destroying the planet and the moral fiber of humanity. Feminism is not about replicating the disaster. It’s about mending it.
Much of the book is also devoted to the work of the Isabel Allende Foundation, which she founded as a memorial to her daughter Paula. The Foundation is “dedicated to supporting programs that promote and preserve the fundamental rights of women and children to be empowered and protected.”
I have to admit, I got bogged down in statistics, but I certainly admire her buoyancy and optimism. This memoir is beautifully-written, blessedly short, witty, and very political. Disappointing, in that I had expected a personal memoir.
And now I need to go back and read (or reread) her fiction.