This was the library book club pick for the month and my first Isabel Allende novel. I looooved it, but it was a highly contested work at the book club (with many people rating it very poorly), but since this is MY review I’ll defend my position, and (somewhat begrudgingly) give insights into the critiques.
This novel reminded Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” in its tone and ability to captivate me, and in introducing me to a geography/history that I don’t know a lot about (in Pachinko, North Korea, in this book, South America) but instead of the sweeping historical fiction tale of an entire Korean family, this is the shorter-length but still sweeping tale of the entire lifespan of the titular Violeta, set in a not-ever-clarified South American country.*
*The fact that she never clarifies what country the book is set in drove a lot of people bonkers. Even I flipped back and forth, thinking I missed it, but the author clarified that she didn’t specify the country because it gave her more freedom, and it could have occurred in many South American countries. I found that valid, but the book club members thought it lazy. Shrug.
So if you took Pachinko, shortened it, simplified it, and then added the main character from “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” you’ve got this book. By that I mean like Evelyn, Violeta is an independent, and at times unlikeable protagonist, ahead of her time, flaunting social expectations around marriage and motherhood. She is self-centered and though living through revolutions and political uprisings often stays on the outskirts, until she herself is impacted. I found the writing of this faux memoir relatable, as Violeta pens the life story she is sharing directly in correspondence with a family member. The book club peeps complained that there wasn’t enough character development buuuut if you remember this is supposed to be someone’s memoir, then I think that makes sense. The book is mostly about Violeta because it’s supposed to be her telling her own story.
There are some weird moments that pulled me out of the story, a la the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.” (Go with me on this). The premise of the show is that Ted, the narrator, is literally telling all the stories of his life and dating mishaps to his kids and when you remember that, it gets a bit awkward for you, the viewer. For the most part in this book, it’s a device you forget but one sentence in particular brought me out of the book and made me snicker.
“I let myself sink into the delicious swamp of a desire that once satisfied was immediately rekindled; nothing could satiate my primordial thirst for that man.”
“Swamp of desire” and “thirst,” I mean DANG GRANDMA. But also, mad respect.
I liked this book a lot and will likely read more Allende, but I also give mad respect to the criticisms and my book club members who come together monthly for what I would describe as an exchange of joyous contention. 🙂