Paula, published in Spanish in 1994 and English in 1995, is the first nonfiction book by Isabel Allende, one of today’s most influential Latin-American authors. An autobiography framed by the author’s experience of watching her only daughter’s slow death, the book is ‘‘equal parts heartbreak, humor and wisdom,’’ as described by Cynthia Dockrell in her review for the Boston Globe. Allende wrote the book while her daughter Paula was in a coma from 1991 to 1992 and uses her writing to preserve memories as she teaches herself to let her daughter go. Like with her first, landmark novel, The House of the Spirits, Allende followed a personal tradition of letter-writing to begin Paula and did not think of the audience: ‘‘It was meant to become a journal that I would give to my children and my grandchildren,’’ she said to Dockrell. The book that was never meant to be published became an instant bestseller in several countries.
Many reviewers have pointed out that Allende’s first work of nonfiction reads like a novel—in fact, German and Dutch translations of Paula were subtitled ‘‘A Novel’’—but the author differentiates between genres even in the book itself. When describing the evening she met her second husband, on a night of the full moon with Sinatra singing from the restaurant’s speakers, Allende adds: ‘‘This is the kind of detail that is forbidden in literature . . . The problem with fiction is that it must seem credible, while reality seldom is.’’ This time around, the reality behind the inspirations for many eccentric, mystical, larger-than-life characters and adventures in Allende’s earlier works are revealed in her descriptions of actual people and events—proving that her fictional work often stems from the author’s life itself.