Book: Paula, by Isabel Allende
Preferred Reading Environment: This would be a great book to read on vacation. There are slow parts where you’ll probably want to put it down, so being surrounded by new sights will be nice.
Reading Accoutrements: Possibly some tissues – this is a sad one.
Content Notes: Grief, Death, War
As I was going through the “Friends of the Library” store at my local public library, Isabel Allende’s name popped out. Of course, I had heard about Isabel Allende’s work, but I had never personally read it myself. I picked up Paula, read the blurb, and knew that it was finally time to see what all the hype was about.
One of the volunteers at the desk saw me looking and said “I put that there on display thinking someone would snatch it up immediately and no one has!” “Well, I’m definitely buying it!” I replied, and at $0.50, I really couldn’t pass it up. Plus, all proceeds go to library programs, so everyone wins. The desk volunteer said she had not read Paula yet, but loved House of Spirits, and had more Allende works on her reading list.
I now also have more Allende books on my reading list. I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or bad thing that I keep reading author’s memoirs before I read the fiction that made them notable or famous. On one hand, it inspires me to read those works. On the other hand, I’m reading about their lives and careers without context of the work that built it. I usually encounter minor spoilers, or at the very least references that I don’t quite understand because I haven’t read the source material.
All that being said, Paula is a beautiful look into Allende’s life. This memoir starts out as a letter to Paula, Allende’s 28 year-old daughter who has suddenly fallen into a coma. Allende begins the letter by explaining that she is writing so that Paula will have something to remind her of who she is when she wakes up. Allende presents the history of their family, going back several generations, painting a clear picture of the couplings and events that eventually led to Paula’s birth. This is a close look at a specific family’s experience during politically tumultuous times.
For me, this book served as a window to a world that I vaguely knew existed, but was not closely familiar with. Allende was born in 1942 in Peru, and grew up in Chile, from where most of her family history extends. She wrote Paula in 1992, which I feel is important, because it’s written from the lens of the 90s as modern day. The internet existed but not in the same way it does today. Much of the action of the book takes place in the 50s and 70s in Chile. Allende lived in many different countries and had friends in many more, but I feel like the world she talks about is connected in a very different sense than today’s world. Communications with people in other countries was not always reliable or quick.
Allende is known for magical realism in her fiction, and that is not omitted from her nonfiction writing. She has a lot of spiritual encounters, most notably with the spirit of her grandmother, who passed away when Isabel was six. She also has several dreams and visions where she converses with Paula’s spirit.
Allende’s life is one that vacillates between political privilege and poverty. Her father was an ambassador who left her mother when Allende was only a few years old. Allende never met her father again and only saw him after his death, when she was called to identify his body. His father, however, did have a relationship with Isabel’s family. She tells stories of spending summers visiting her paternal grandfather, Salvador Allende, who would go on to become the first and only communist president of Chile. She tells of his short time in office, what state the country was in and some of the reasons, and then outlines the coup that would lead to the seventeen-year long military dictatorship that caused Allende and her family to flee for their lives.
Salvador Allende wasn’t the only political figure in Isabel Allende’s life. Her mother’s second husband, referred to fondly as Tío Ramon, was also an ambassador. Allende spent many years of her youth living in embassies, sometimes in times of prosperity, but also in times of war. One scene shows Allende witnessing bombers outside their home, the shock of which traumatized her mother’s swiss dog, who never recovered its nerves.
Since the book is framed as a letter to Paula, Paula herself doesn’t play a huge role in the story. She serves as the motivation for the book, and the frame, and the spirit – but she is not present in a lot of the actual content. Of course, Allende tells a few stories of Paula as a child, shows how Paula’s husband deals with the tragedy, and touches on how other relatives and loved ones are affected by Paula’s sudden decline.
Allende also shares stories of other patients in the hospital with Paula, and the people who visit them. There’s a slightly loopy woman who writes Paula morbid poems. There are patients who don’t communicate, some who are unconscious like Paula, others who stay for short periods or pass on. Allende weaves their stories into Paula’s, these connections with people illustrating what I think is one of the messages of the book.
Allende’s life has been full of traumatic events, and in all of those, there were people she turned to for help. There’s never a story where isolation saves anyone. The stories of the book are connected by people. A man her mother spent some time with semi-randomly for a few weeks ended up offering their family a place to live away from Chile after the dictatorship started. Allende weaves the story of her life together in a way that shows how seemingly small connections between people can have powerful effects.
Allende and her mother wrote letters to each other almost every day for a lot of Allende’s life. Sometimes they would save these and deliver them in bulk. Other times, they did serve as correspondence, but their main purpose was historical preservation. So, they would have a recounting that wasn’t beholden to the flaws of the human brain. This practice contributed to Allende’s close relationship with her mother. I also believe there’s a comparison to be made with communications today. Most people are able to communicate with our loved ones regularly through one form of technology or another. But how many of those communications are able to be looked back on? Texts, calls, video chats, are almost always lost to time. And in our more frequent communications, do we lose some depth of connection?
There was a lot to love about this book. Somewhere in the middle, I did get a little restless, but overall, I enjoyed the narrative. Allende has had an eventful and interesting life. She’s met people like Pablo Neruda, she’s lived in beautiful and terrifying places, and she’s a wonderful storyteller. It helped that in a lot of ways, I related to her personality, as well – she gravitates toward the left politically and she has some flower-power hippy tendencies that I love. Allende presents her life openly and without regret. She admits her flaws, and shares stories about decisions she’s made that some authors or biographers would want to hide. She doesn’t pass judgement on herself or others and I feel that leads to an honesty that not all memoirs have. Paula is Isabel Allende’s truth. It’s her story, definitely through the lens of her experiences, but it’s as unbiased a telling as anyone’s life story can be.
Allende talks a few times about how her ideals have been shaped by the world she grew up in. For example, she talks about her idea of feminism in the 70s as compared to now. In the 70s, she was all for being an independent woman. She had a job and supported her family while her husband finished his education. But she never would have dreamed of sharing cooking, cleaning, or childcare responsibilities, and her husband wouldn’t have thought to offer. She also talks about how relatively sheltered she was in some ways: she never saw a condom until her daughter was an adult and she never thought Chile could be overrun by violence, even as early stages of the dictatorship were taking place. She shows how her view of the world changed with her experiences and how the world has changed throughout the years.
Of course, an author’s memoir is going to talk some about the writing process. I love Allende’s career arc and how she presents it. She kind of stumbled into journalism, which according to her, no one seemed to think she was good at. Pablo Neruda told her she was Chile’s worst journalist and that she should write fiction instead. Eventually, she started a letter to her dying grandfather and ended up with a novel. Allende is an author who becomes completely obsessed with the work she is writing. Seeing her process and the superstitions she adheres to is a fun experience I think most aspiring writers would enjoy. I love that she started her writing career in her 40s. It’s never too late!
Overall, Paula was a great read. It was educational, inspiring, and entertaining. It does have a little bit of drag in places, but I find that pretty common in memoirs. I still read it in just a few sittings, and I never put it down for too long before I wanted to pick it up again. Since the book spans over 40 years, travels through several countries, and talks about politics, personal relationships, and the artistic process, I feel like there’s a little something in here for everyone.
Have you read an of Isabel Allende’s fiction? Which would you recommend I start with?