In her wide-ranging memoir, Paula, Isabel Allende tells the story of a conversation she had with famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. As they talked, he said to her, “My dear child, you must be the worst journalist in the country. You are incapable of being objective, you place yourself at the center of everything you do, I suspect you’re not beyond fibbing, and when you don’t have news, you invent it. Why don’t you write novels instead? In literature, those defects are virtues.” Exactly so.
As Allende tells her story, it’s both memoir and the history of her family. Next, layer on top some Chilean and Latin American history, and you get the picture. But as Neruda said, Allende is a center of the entire story as she tells it. Sometimes that felt quite normal and natural, while other times it just felt self-centered.
Isabel Allende comes from a family of diplomats and storytellers. As connected as they are to the events around them, Allende also tells the tales of their love for each other. About her grandparents, Tata and Memé, she says, “I believe they lived in irreconcilable worlds and at fleeting moments loved one another with painful tenderness and secret passion.”
The premise of this book is a sad one, given that it started as a letter to her gravely ill daughter Paula. Paula’s story of hospitalization and illness is interspersed between the family and personal history from Allende. It was Paula’s story that made me pick up the book, although it also fulfills a reading challenge prompt as well. I wanted to read about how a mother copes with the terrible difficulty of a daughter slipping away from her.
Allende spends many chapters—months in the story—reconciling herself with Paula’s fate. She says, “It came to me how for countless centuries women have lost children, how it is humanity’s most ancient and inevitable sorrow. I am not alone, most mothers know this pain, it breaks their heart but they go in living because they must protect and love those who are left.”
I liked Allende’s exploration of motherhood and grandmotherhood throughout the decades of her life. I want to be this kind of fierce grandmother:
I have the idea that we grandmothers are meant to play the part of protective witches; we must watch over younger women, children, community, and also, why not?, this mistreated planet, the victim of unrelenting desecration.
Despite all the ways I connected to Allende’s story of motherhood, I couldn’t help but think that if I was Paula’s husband it would have enraged me that her mother took so much control. Allende assumes herself to be the center of her daughter’s life. This is both positive and negative, in my mind. Mothers and daughters can be best friends, but husbands should be driving the decisions about care. Of course, my feelings are most likely colored by the relationship I had with my mother, which was radically different than Allende’s with Paula.
Allende’s writing style includes magical realism, just as her novels do. Did those skunks really meander through the house? Did she truly strip naked and eat dirt? Who knows? But just when I thought I couldn’t stand another long, drawn out, fantastical description, Allende would write a brilliant phrase or sentence. I ended up with gobs of Post-It tabs marking those moments I loved.
Parts of this book will stay with me a long time-the depth of mother love, the passionate couples, and the deep national pride. For that, it was a worthy journey.