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.
Part One: December 1991 to May 1992
Sitting by Paula’s hospital bed in Madrid and waiting for any sign of improvement as her daughter lies in a coma caused by a rare blood disease, Allende begins to tell the story of her life with the purpose of offering her own past to her ill daughter. ‘‘Listen, Paula. I’m going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.’’
Allende begins with her Chilean heritage and national history, her family tree, the controversial circumstances of her parents’ marriage, and Allende’s birth. Often switching between the vivid memories of the past and the silent waiting of the present by Paula’s hospital bed, the narrator introduces a complex web of relatives that surrounded her during her childhood, after the scandalous divorce of her parents: her father abandoned the family after a political scandal at the Peruvian embassy, in which he might have been involved. Back in her maternal grandparents’ home in Chile, little Allende forms strong and lasting bonds with family members and begins to develop a sense of liberal politics as she observes the lives of her family’s servants. She also learns the art of storytelling from her spirit-summoning grandmother Meme and her grandfather Tata. After her mother’s marriage to Chilean diplomat Tio Ramon, the family moves again, and Allende spends her teenage years in Lebanon. Because of the political unrest in the region during the 1950s, she is sent back to Santiago to finish school; there she meets her first husband Michael. They have two children, Paula and Nicolas.
Allende proceeds to write about her professional adventures, from her work for the United Nations to her work as a journalist. During the 1960s, Allende relates how she developed into a feminist liberal while traveling and greatly expanding her social life. When she attempts to interview
poet Pablo Neruda, he advises her to use her creative talents to write fiction; advice she will eventually take. Further, the author recalls the victory of Salvador Allende in 1970, only to contrast it with the events three years later when the military coup under Augusto Pinochet fully disrupts the life she...
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