|The author of several novels and a short fiction collection, as well as plays and stories for children, Isabel Allende has received international acclaim for her writing. She earned the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voice Award nomination for her debut novel, La casa de los espíritus (1982; The House of the Spirits)–which became a best seller in Spain and West Germany in the 1980s and a 1994 movie–and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination for De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows). In 1988 Allende’s third novel, Eva Luna, was voted One of the Year’s Best Books by Library Journal.Many of Allende’s books are noted for their feminine perspective, dramatic qualities of romance and struggle, and the magic realism genre often found in Latin American literature. Her female characters survive hardships–imprisonment, starvation, the loss of loved ones–but never lose their spirit or ability to love others. Of Allende’s House of Spirits, which has been compared to that of the Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez ‘s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Lori Carlson observed in Review: “There is a lot of love in The House of the Spirits. The love-making of powerful men and naive women, worn-out married couples and anxious rebels might even conjure up the reader’s personal experience. But there is another kind of love in this book with which the reader cannot identify. It is a kind that requires forgiving the person whose torturous hand has shoved your face into a bucket of excrement. A spiritual force that can overcome a world sutured with evil, to beget art. Isabel Allende . . . tells in this, her first novel, a vibrant story of struggle and survival dedicated to her mother, grandmother, and “other extraordinary’ women in a country unnamed. Given the descriptions of events and people in the book . . . Chile quickly comes to mind.”
Allende was born on August 2, 1942, in Lima, Peru. Her parents, Tomás, a Chilean diplomat, and Francisca (Llona Barros) Allende divorced when she was three, and she traveled with her mother to Santiago, Chile, where she was raised in her grandparents’ home. Allende graduated from a private high school at the age of 16; three years later in 1962, she married her first husband, Miguel Frías, an engineer. Allende also went to work for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Santiago, where she was a secretary for several years. Later, she became a journalist, editor, and advice columnist for Paula magazine. In addition, she worked as a television interviewer and on movie newsreels.
Fled ChileWhen her uncle, Chilean president Salvador Allende, was assassinated in 1973 as part of a right-wing military coup against his socialist government, Allende’s life changed profoundly. Initially, she did not think that the new regime would endure, but later she came to realize that it was too dangerous to stay in Chile. As a result, Allende, her husband, and their two children fled to Venezuela. Although she had established a successful career as a journalist in Chile, Allende nevertheless had a difficult time finding work in journalism in Venezuela.During her life in exile, Allende was inspired to write The House of the Spirits. The novel was adapted for the screen by the Danish writer and director Bille August and released in the United States in 1994. Based on Allende’s memories of her family and the political upheaval in her native country, the book chronicles the personal and political conflicts in the lives of successive generations of a family in an anonymous Latin American country. These events are principally communicated through the memories of the novel’s three central characters: Esteban and Clara, the patriarch and matriarch of the Trueba family, and Alba, their leftist granddaughter who falls into the hands of torturers during a military coup.
The House of Spirits was followed by Of Love and Shadows, which concerns the switching at birth of two infant girls. One of the babies grows up to become the focus of a journalist’s investigation, and the revelation of her assassination compels the reporter and photographer to go into exile. The Detroit Free Press described Of Love and Shadows as “a frightening, powerful work,” in which Allende “proves her continued capacity for generating excellent fiction,” while the Toronto Globe and Mail commented that “Allende has some difficulty in getting her novel started because she has to weave two stories separately, and seems to be relying initially too much on her skills as a journalist.”
On a lecture tour to San Jose, California, to promote the publication of Of Love and Shadows in the United States, Allende met William Gordon, a lawyer, who was an admirer of her work and with whom she fell in love. Having been divorced from her first husband for about a year, she married Gordon in 1988, and has lived with him in their suburban home in Marin, California, ever since.
Allende’s next book, Eva Luna, focuses on the relationship between Eva–an illegitimate scriptwriter and storyteller–and Rolfe Carlé–an Austrian émigré filmmaker haunted by his father’s Nazi past. The novel received positive reviews; for example, Abigail E. Lee in the Times Literary Supplement wrote, “Fears that Isabel Allende might be a “one-book’ writer . . . ought to be quashed by Eva Luna. . . . Allende moves between the personal and the political, between realism and fantasy, weaving two exotic coming-of-age stories–Eva Luna’s and Rolfe Carlé’s–into the turbulent coming of age of her unnamed South American country.” Further, Alan Ryan of the Washington Post Book World asserted that Eva Luna is “a remarkable novel, one in which a cascade of stories tumbles out before the reader, stories vivid and passionate and human enough to engage, in their own right, all the reader’s attention and sympathy.”
Allende followed up this novel with Cuentos de Eva Luna (1991; The Stories of Eva Luna ), in which the heroine of Eva Luna relates several stories to her lover Carlé. According to Alan Ryan in USA Today, “These stories transport us to a complex world of sensual pleasures, vivid dreams and breathless longings. It is a world in which passions are fierce, motives are profound and deeds have inexorable consequences.” Anne Whitehouse of The Baltimore Sun noted that “Ms. Allende possesses the ability to penetrate the hearts of Eva’s characters in a few brief sentences. . . . These are profound, transcendent stories, which hold the mirror up to nature and in their strangeness reveal us to ourselves.”
The Eva Luna stories were followed by El plan infinito (1993; The Infinite Plan) which, in a stylistic departure for Allende, features a male hero in a North American setting. Gregory Reeves is the son of a traveling preacher and prophet who settles in the Hispanic barrio of Los Angeles after becoming ill. As the only Anglo boy in the district, Reeves is tormented by local gang members. Eventually, he finds his way out of the barrio, does a tour of duty in Vietnam, and goes on to study law at Berkeley. The Infinite Plan received less praise than Allende’s previous books; Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described the novel as a “Bildungsroman-cum-family saga that owes more to Judith Krantz than to Gabriel García Márquez,” concluding that it is “disappointing and mechanical.” Still, as novelist Jane Smiley pointed out in her Boston Globe review, “Not many [émigré authors] have even attempted writing a novel from the point of view of a native of the new country.”
Paula (1995), is a heartrending account of the circumstances surrounding the lengthy illness and death of her daughter in 1991. Commenting on the deeply emotive effect of Paula, the reviewer for Publishers Weekly declared that “[only] a writer of Allende’s passion and skill could share her tragedy with her readers and leave them exhilarated and grateful.”
Allende’s novels have been translated from Spanish into over 30 languages and sold more than 56 million copies. There are three movies based on her novels currently in production — Aphrodite, Eva Luna and Gift for a Sweetheart. Her 2008 book, The Sum of Our Days is a memoir. It focuses on her recent life with her immediate family, which includes her grown son, Nicolás; second husband, William Gordon; and several grandchildren. A novel set in New Orleans was published in 2010, The Island Beneath the Sea. In 2011 came El Cuaderno de Maya (“Maya’s Notebook”), a novel in which the setting alternates between Berkeley, California, and Chiloé in Chile.
“Isabel Allende.” Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Gale Research, 1996. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2002.