Last reviewed: June 2017
Chilean American writer known for inventing international, intergenerational family sagas
August 2, 1942
Isabel Allende begins every new book on January 8, a practice she continues for good luck ever since the success of her first book, The House of the Spirits. On January 8, 1981, while exiled in Venezuela, Allende was feeling guilty for not being with her dying grandfather. She had promised to be with him during his last days, but the military regime prevented her from returning to Chile. The letter she wrote that day eventually became The House of the Spirits, which launched Allende’s career as a novelist; by the mid-1990’s, she had become the most widely read Latin American woman writer.
Born to Chilean diplomat Tomás Allende and his wife Francisca Llona Barros, who separated after a few years of marriage, Isabel Allende and her two brothers lived in their maternal grandparents’ home in Santiago, where their mother offset her economic dependence on her parents by working in a bank and stitching at home. Isabel Allende, Miami Book Fair International, 1990
Isabel Allende, Miami Book Fair International, 1990
During her childhood, the grandparents’ library became a favorite spot. Allende enjoyed access to their large collection as well as the intellectual freedom to read books well beyond her age. Her formative years were marked by her grandparents, whom she first portrayed as Clara del Valle and Esteban Trueba in The House of the Spirits.
Allende left her grandparents’ home to live abroad with her mother and stepfather, a Chilean diplomat who had helped the family after Tomás Allende abandoned them in Peru. Tomás Allende disassociated himself completely from his wife and children, but his cousin, Salvador Allende, who in 1970 became president of Chile, maintained close ties with the family. As an adolescent, Isabel Allende found intellectual stimulation not so much in libraries but in the cultures of the various countries where her stepfather worked.
Soon after returning to Chile at age fifteen, Allende met her future husband, Miguel Frías. Eventually, the couple married, and Allende supported the home with her journalism while Frías finished his engineering degree. Later, Allende balanced her duties as a homemaker, a journalist, and a mother of two children, Paula and Nicolás. Although she admits that objectivity never came easy and her journalistic writing often reflected her own perspective, training in journalism did provide the important skill of seizing and holding the reader’s interest, essential also in fiction.
Allende’s novels are rooted in personal experience. “The desire to write flares up inside me when I feel very strongly about something,” she has said, “I need to feel a very deep emotion.” After the bloody military coup in 1973 ousted Salvador Allende from the presidency, Isabel Allende continued her journalism while clandestinely helping persecuted people leave the country. In 1975, this work became too dangerous, and Allende, along with her husband and children, left for Venezuela. The House of the Spirits was also spawned from the years she felt paralyzed by the emotional devastation of exile and family displacement.
Beyond the tale of political repression, The House of the Spirits depicts Latin America’s heritage. Esteban Trueba, a self-made man, becomes wealthy by exploiting landless peasants. Allende combines elements of realism and fantasy to present a portraiture of Latin American existence, including a matriarchy sustained by generations of females knowledgeable in undermining male control.
Allende’s second novel, Of Love and Shadows, continues her depiction of repression, torture, and death in Chile. The story focuses on the political killings of fifteen peasants which sparked international attention when their bodies were uncovered and the news was disclosed by the Catholic Church before the government could intervene. At that time, Allende’s main concern was “telling about my continent, getting across our truth.” Love, sorrow, violence, and death, frequently presented from a female’s point of view, are recurrent topics in Allende’s books.
By 1987, when Eva Luna was published, Allende had divorced Frías, left Venezuela, and moved to California. The character Eva Luna suggests an incarnation of Allende herself, a storyteller, an orphan—symbolic of exile—and a female whose life consists of a series of adventures. In The Stories of Eva Luna, the reader gets to hear the stories which the protagonist of Eva Luna refers to in the novel but does not tell. Allende admits that she dislikes writing short stories and considers the genre a very difficult one that requires inspiration—something a writer does not control—more than the hard work and discipline for which she has trained herself. The Infinite Plan was Allende’s first novel not related to Latin America. Inspired by her second husband’s life and work in California among the Mexican American community, the novel focuses on Gregory Reeves, an Anglo who grows up in the barrio, escapes gang life, and pursues higher education. Reeves, like Allende’s husband, dedicates his legal skills to Latino families.
Daughter of Fortune, set in the nineteenth century, is a novel about Eliza Sommers, a young woman who leaves her foster parents in Chile to find her lover, who has joined the California gold rush. Portrait in Sepia, published a year later, takes up the characters of Daughter of Fortune. Here, Eliza Sommers is a secondary personage as the grandmother of Aurora del Valle, whom she raises until the age of five and then parts from completely, leaving her in the care of Paulina del Valle. Aurora is a contemporary of and related to Clara del Valle from The House of the Spirits. Allende has referred to the three novels as a trilogy, but they are so only in the sense of having some overlapping characters and sharing as theme the exploration of women’s roles.
Allende's later Alexander Cold trilogy, by contrast, follows the same characters without large chronological leaps and has many of the same concerns. A coming-of-age adventure-thriller series, it takes readers on journeys into the Amazon Forest in City of the Beasts, the Himalayan Mountains in Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, and Africa in Forest of the Pygmies.
The autobiographical Paula details Allende’s anguish as she sits at her dying daughter’s bedside in a Madrid hospital. During the year that Paula remains in a coma, Allende recounts the family history. The book ends with her daughter’s death on December 6, 1992, in Allende’s house in California. Allende’s own mother, besides being a best friend, edits her daughter’s manuscripts. Allende returns to motherhood, loss, family, and faith once again in her memoir, The Sum of Our Days.
Much as in her earlier fiction, the adult novels Allende wrote in the early twenty-first-century deal with straddling identities and conflicting worlds. Zorro imagines the vigilante/outlaw as being a mestizo (person of Spanish and native descent) fighting for his people. Inés of My Soul interweaves a romance with the conquest of the Inca Empire and the establishment of Santiago, Chile. Island beneath the Sea follows the story of a mixed-race woman struggling to escape slavery in the Caribbean.
Beginning in 2014, Allende changed tack, however. Maya's Notebook and Ripper both feature present-day American teenagers who come-of-age through their experiences with the criminal underworld. Despite differing greatly from her prior historical fiction, both books were well received. In The Japanese Lover (2015), however, Allende returns to her winning formula of an international cast of characters, relationships that cross boundaries, and a complex multigenerational plot.
The translations of Allende’s books into dozens of languages and the numerous literary as well as honorary awards recognize her stature among world authors. For her prolific, acclaimed work, she has received the Library of Congress National Book Festival Creative Achievement Award (2010), the Lawrence Sanders Award in Fiction (2012), the Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award (2012), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2014), and the PEN Center USA's Lifetime Achievement Award (2016), among other honors. Allende also holds honorary doctorates from Harvard University and San Francisco State University.