Authors: Isabel Allende

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Chilean American writer known for inventing international, intergenerational family sagas

August 2, 1942

Lima, Peru

Biography

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

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Isabel Allende

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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.

Author Works Long Fiction: La casa de los espíritus, 1982 (The House of the Spirits, 1985) De amor y de sombra, 1984 (Of Love and Shadows, 1987) Eva Luna, 1987 (English translation, 1988) El plan infinito, 1991 (The Infinite Plan, 1993) Hija de la fortuna, 1999 (Daughter of Fortune, 1999) Retrato en sepia, 2000 (Portrait in Sepia, 2001) Zorro, 2005 (English translation, 2005) Inés del alma mía, 2006 (Inés of My Soul, 2006) Isla bajo el mar, 2009 (Island beneath the Sea, 2010) Cuaderno de Maya, 2011 (Maya's Notebook, 2013) Juego de Ripper, 2014 (Ripper, 2014) Amante japonés, 2015 (The Japanese Lover, 2015) Short Fiction: Cuentos de Eva Luna, 1990 (The Stories of Eva Luna, 1991) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: La gorda de porcelana, 1984 La ciudad de las bestias, 2002 (City of the Beasts, 2002) Reino del dragón de oro, 2003 (Kingdom of the Golden Dragon, 2004) Bosque de los Pigmeos, 2004 (Forest of the Pygmies, 2005) Nonfiction: Civilice a su troglodita: Los impertinentes de Isabel Allende, 1974 Paula, 1994 (English translation, 1995) Conversations with Isabel Allende, 1999 Mi país inventado, 2003 (My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey through Chile, 2003) Suma de los días, 2007 (The Sum of Our Days, 2008) Miscellaneous: Afrodita: Cuentos, recetas, y otros afrodisiacos, 1997 (Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, 1998) Bibliography Allende, Isabel. Conversations with Isabel Allende. Edited by John Rodden. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. Collection of interviews with the author sheds some light on her life and work. Allende, Isabel. My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Memoir presents Allende’s reflections on the land of her youth, the people she knew, and history. This work illuminates the author’s semiautobiographical novels. Bloom, Harold, ed. Isabel Allende. New York: Chelsea House, 2002. Collection of essays on Allende’s work includes an informative editor’s introduction as well as analyses by other major scholars. Correas Zapata, Celia. Isabel Allende: Life and Spirits. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2002. First biographical discussion of Allende in book form, written by an admiring but scholarly friend of the novelist, provides an intimate glimpse into Allende’s life. Cox, Karen Castellucci. Isabel Allende: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Presents down-to-earth analysis of Allende’s novels through Portrait in Sepia. Includes a biographical sketch. De Carvalho, Susan. “The Male Narrative Perspective in the Fiction of Isabel Allende.” Journal of Hispanic Research 2, no. 2 (Spring, 1994): 269-278. Shows that “Walimai” is different from the other short stories in Los cuentos de Eva Luna in that it is written in the first person and from a male perspective. Argues that the first-person, male perspective in this story represents the ideal narrative voice. García Pinto, Magdalena, ed. Women Writers of Latin America: Intimate Histories. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Contains an interview with Allende that provides a great deal of insight into the way she views her writing. Allende mentions that she sees herself as a troubadour going from village to village, person to person, talking about her country. Gough, Elizabeth. “Vision and Revision: Voyeurism in the Works of Isabel Allende.” Journal of Modern Literature 27, no. 4 (2004): 93-120. Offers an insightful and readable analysis of photography, spying, and hidden observation as themes in Allende’s work. Hart, Patricia. Narrative Magic in the Fiction of Isabel Allende. Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1989. An overview of Allende’s fiction up to 1987; it has a chapter on Magical Realism and a clearly-written, helpful section on the novel Eva Luna, which is useful background for the analysis of the short stories. Argues that Allende parodies rather than imitates Gabriel García Márquez. Hart, Stephen M. White Ink: Essays on Twentieth-Century Feminine Fiction in Spain and Latin America. London: Tamesis, 1993. Sets Allende’s work within the context of women’s writing in the twentieth century in Latin America. Examines the ways in which Allende fuses the space of the personal with that of the political in her fiction and shows that, in her work, falling in love with another human being is often aligned with falling in love with a political cause. Levine, Linda Gould. Isabel Allende. New York: Twayne, 2002. An introductory work that presents analysis of Allende’s works. Includes bibliographical references and index. Marketta, Laurila. “Isabel Allende and the Discourse of Exile.” In International Women’s Writing, New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Gooze. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. This book is helpful, both for Marketta’s analysis of Allende’s use of the language of exile and for other Allende materials in the collection. Rodden, John. Conversations with Isabel Allende. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999. This series of interviews provides new autobiographical material in addition to answering most questions general readers may have about Allende’s work. Rojas, Sonia Riquelme, and Edna Aguirre Rehbein, eds. Critical Approaches to Isabel Allende’s Novels. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Collection of essays provides in-depth discussion of Allende’s first three novels. Roof, Maria. “Maryse Conde and Isabel Allende: Family Saga Novels.” World Literature Today 70, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 410-416. Looks at The House of the Spirits and another novel in the context of the generational novel. Roof, Maria. “W. E. B. Du Bois, Isabel Allende, and the Empowerment of Third World Women.” CLA Journal 39, no. 4 (June, 1996): 401-416. A good source for readers interested in the feminist elements in Allende. Swanson, Philip. The New Novel in Latin America: Politics and Popular Culture After the Boom. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. Chapter 9 contains a discussion of the use of popular culture in Allende’s fiction, showing that the people and popular culture are seen to challenge official culture and patriarchy in her work. Includes an introduction that sets Allende’s work in the context of the works of other post-Latin American boom novelists. Williams, Raymond L. The Postmodern Novel in Latin America: Poltics, Culture, and the Crisis of Truth. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996. One of Allende’s most vigorous critics, who argues that Allende’s fiction simply imitates Gabriel García Márquez’s and that it is not postmodern in any real sense.

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