Friends, a couple of weeks ago, I had one of those life experiences that gets me really excited about writing. More often than not, those experiences involve meeting other writers. But this time, it wasn’t just another writer – it was Isabel Allende.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, let me say this: if you ask me for a book that will change you – really and truly change the way you think about reading and about writing – I will send you a copy of The House of the Spirits. (No, really…I’ve sent it to at least a half dozen people.) Her writing is like nothing else. It is lyrical, epic, and more full of imagination and impossibilities than anything I’ve ever experienced.
So, when I heard she was giving a lecture nearby to launch her newest book, Maya’s Notebook, the wonderful people at Harper (her publishers) were kind enough to let me attend. And it was remarkable. Allende is an incredible human being – full of wisdom, self-assurance, fire, and endless stories. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, I can’t recommend it enough. Hearing an author speak about their work always makes me feel more connected to it, and I loved learning that so much of the story is based on characters in her own life.
Oh yes, the book. In the press release, it’s called a “bold departure” for Allende. And it is, to be sure. Rather than being set in some distant time and exotic place, filled with fanciful characters my imagination could never conjure, Maya’s Notebook is set in modern day, with a cast of people I have no trouble at all envisioning. Maya is a 19-year-old girl (Allende says she’s a composite of all of her grandchildren) running from some unknown-yet-terrifying trouble, and her protective spitfire grandmother (based on Allende herself) sends her to live with a distant friend on a remote island. From there, the story unfolds in fits and starts, with sections about her stay on the island, then a few paragraphs about the trouble she’s found herself in. But Allende teases it out, almost torturing you, forcing you to read “just a few more pages” to get a bit more of the story before you turn off the light and go to sleep.
As you’d guess from the title, the entire book is written from her perspective, almost as a journal – though this is one very well-spoken 19-year-old. I had more trouble getting into this book than I have in the past with Allende’s work – the fits and starts in which it’s written, and her intentionally slow unveiling of Maya’s history can be maddeningly drawn out. But lines like “…the last image I have of her is of the Volkswagen sneezing in the rain as she drove away.” and “Happiness is slippery, it slithers away between your fingers, but problems are something you can hold onto…” were enough to remind me to hold on and let her story work its magic.
If you’re not familiar with Allende (or if her novels have never been your cup of tea), and want an easy place to start, this book is a fantastic starting point. You’ll get all of her beautiful writing style without that high-level suspension of disbelief her other novels require.
What do you think? Do you know Allende’s work? Are you looking forward to picking this one up?