Isabel Allende (ahl-YEHN-dee) 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.
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 stimuli 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...
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