Respected as one of the foremost writers of contemporary Latin-American literature, Allende documents the tumultuous social, political, and gender-based issues particular to South America. She frequently draws upon her own experiences as well as those of family members to examine the violence and repression historically experienced by South Americans. Allende often blends graphic realism with elements of magic realism, illuminating injustices perpetrated against women and to address women's struggles to obtain equality. Widely translated, Allende's fiction has received international popular and critical acclaim, particularly among feminist scholars.
Allende was born in Lima, Peru, where her father served as a Chilean diplomat. Although Allende's contact with her father ceased following her parents' divorce, she remained close to his side of the family—particularly with Salvador Allende, her uncle and godfather, who was president of Chile from 1970 until 1973. In 1973 Salvador Allende was murdered during August Pinochet's right-wing military coup. As a young girl, Allende lived with her maternal grandparents in Santiago, Chile. Her grandparents would later serve as models for Esteban and Clara Trueba, whose family history Allende chronicles in her first novel, La casa de los espíritus (1982; The House of the Spirits). After spending her adolescence in Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East with her mother and stepfather, Allende became a television journalist as well as a writer for Paula, a radical feminist magazine. In 1973, when Pinochet seized power, Allende went into exile with her husband and children in Caracas, Venezuela. She had difficulty finding work in Venezuela, but eventually began writing satirical essays for the newspaper El nacional. In the mid-to late-1980s, she held teaching positions at the University of Virginia, Montclair College, and the University of California, Berkeley. She divorced her husband in 1987 and began a lecture tour in the United States. There she met William Gordon, an attorney from California. The two married in 1988 and settled north of San Francisco. In late 1991, while preparing for the publication of her fourth novel, El plan infinito (1991; The Infinite Plan) Allende was notified that her daughter Paula had suddenly developed medical complications due to porphyria, a genetic disorder. Paula lingered in a coma for a year, during which Allende rarely left her bedside, until she succumbed to the illness and died in 1992. Allende later documented this period in her memoir Paula (1994).
The House of the Spirits began as a letter written while in exile to Allende's dying grandfather in Chile. She recorded her remembrances of her grandfather to reassure him that although he was dying, he would continue on in her memory. The House of the Spirits is set in an unnamed South American country that is recognizable as Allende's home country, Chile. The plot recounts the experiences of four generations of the del Valle-Trueba family, set against the backdrop of Chilean politics from the turn of the century through the military coup of 1973. Although the characters struggle with new political regimes, the larger battle concerns the female protagonist's efforts to gain independence and control of her life in a patriarchal society. De amor y de sombra (1984; Of Love and Shadows) focuses on journalist Irene Beltrán and photographer Francisco Leal, who uncover evidence of atrocities committed by military personnel and risk great personal harm in their pursuit of justice. They are eventually exiled but have fallen in love and leave their homeland together. Set in a country that resembles Venezuela, Eva Luna (1987) relates the story of an illegitimate young girl, Eva, whose mother dies when Eva is only six years old. The narrative focuses on Eva's survival throughout her difficult childhood and adolescence, and progresses to her discovery of success and fulfillment as a television scriptwriter. Eva's claiming of language empowers her to choose her own destiny and eschew dependence on a male character to speak and provide for her. Cuentos de Eva Luna (1989; The Stories of Eva Luna) again focuses on Eva's character, and transforms several of the biographical sketches in Eva Luna into more detailed short stories. The Infinite Plan follows Gregory Reeves, a young man raised in a poor Chicano neighborhood in Los Angeles. His father is an ex-preacher who subscribes to his own personal philosophy of salvation, called the "Infinite Plan." When the patriarch becomes ill, Gregory must help support his family before attending law school and then serving in Vietnam. After the war he returns to the United States and seeks happiness through the attainment of material goods, power, and sex. Only when he ends his quest for monetary riches and begins to find emotional fulfillment through other means is he finally able to achieve happiness and peace. Paula was written as a family memoir that Allende planned to give to her daughter Paula once she recovered from her coma. The work traces Allende's family history through several generations, recounting her own privileged upbringing, the terror of her uncle's assassination, and the subsequent military coup. Hija de la fortuna (1999; Daughter of Fortune) is a multigenerational novel involving characters at the fringes of "proper society." The novel traces the life of Eliza Sommers, an orphan who was unknowingly reared by her biological aunt in Chile. Eliza falls in love and becomes pregnant, but the child's father leaves during the California gold rush. Eliza follows him to the United States, but miscarries while a stow-away on the ship to California. She becomes deathly ill and is saved by Tao Chi'en, the ship's cook. While searching America for her lover, Eliza keeps in touch with Tao Chi'en by exchanging letters. She finally realizes that what she feels for her missing lover is more like a dream than the real bond she shares with Tao Chi'en, and she returns to California to marry the man who truly loves her. Retrato en sepia (2000; Portrait in Sepia) is a continuation of The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune. Due to severe trauma, Aurora del Valle—the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers—is unable to remember her childhood years. She decides to piece together her fragmented past and, using photographs and language, explores her family history. As she reclaims each memory, she is "reunited" with the strong women from her family history whose spirits have lent their strength to her. By learning their stories, Aurora is able to remember her own life story and write her future in a manner of her choosing.
Often described as one of the first women to enter the male-dominated Latin-American literary scene, Allende is widely credited with launching the post-"Boom" era in South and Central America with the publication of The House of the Spirits. Much of the critical analysis of Allende's work has been devoted to studying her feminist perspective and her focus on marginalized people in society: women, homosexuals, blacks, and Hispanics. Her illumination of female roles in a patriarchal society has been applauded, though some critics charge that Allende's portrayals of Latin males are stereotypical and that she at times resorts to clichés concerning Hispanics. Allende has been noted as a valued commentator on the turbulent nature of Latin American society and also as an author of powerful, humanistic fiction. Although some scholars have faulted her use of magic realism and picturesque language, many reviewers have viewed these embellishments as inherent elements in stories employing a feminine perspective. Such critics have asserted that these methods are natural in fiction written by and for women.