March 16, 2009

Of Love and Shadows by Isabelle Allende

Isabelle Allende is a writer I gave up on awhile back. I started reading her books because I loved the film House of the Spirits, though I never got my hands on that particular book. I found that her books were too dispiriting for me. Not depressing exactly, but sad in a pointless sort of way. I also got frustrated by the whole "magical realism" thing. It seems that every popular Latin American writer must incorporate magical realism into their work if they want to be considered an authentic Latin American author. Laura Esquivel, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Isabelle Allende... It's become a pet peeve of mine. What would happen if a non-Latin writer employed magical realism? I suspect it would simply be called something else, like "fantasy" or "dream-like." This is just a theory of mine, but it seems like racial stereotyping is very present in the world of literature.

Anyway, back to the book.

I picked this one up because it was a shining beacon of literary excellence in the paperback section, the lone plate of bacon and eggs in a buffet of sugary breakfast cereal: Nora Roberts Flakes, Nicholas Sparks Fruity-O's, Dan Brown Wheaty Bites. I had a baby that was about to cry and two kids dancing around in the aisles, I needed to make a selection fast. Isabelle Allende? Alrighty then.

Of Love and Shadows came soon after House of the Spirits, and it reflects a lot of the political and revolutionary fervor of that predecessor. In a good way. The later books I read, Daughter of Fortune, The Infinite Plan, and Portrait in Sepia, were plodding and loose and soggy. Of Love and Shadows is tight, well organized, intriguing, forward-moving, and hopeful.

It's the story of an unnamed (fictional?) South American nation struggling in the years after a military coup overthrew their dictatorship. There are two disparate classes, and the rich live in a bubble, almost completely unaware of the masses of horribly persecuted poor. A young girl who is considered to be a saint disappears, and journalists Irene and Francisco try to track her down. In that course they discover a horrible military secret that endangers their lives and sets the ball rolling to bring down the oppressive government.

It sounds like a standard adventure beach read doesn't it? But it's more involved than that. As I read it I remembered news stories in bits and pieces of various South American countries during the 80's, of hundreds of civilians that were taken in for questioning, never to be seen again. It also reminded me of the biogrophy of the photographer Tina Modotti, who was involved in communist plots in Mexico before WWII.

In the USA we don't learn much about South America, we simply associate it with coffee, choclate, tobacco, drug cartels, beaches, sombreros, that sort of thing. But it has a very rich and troubled history. It seems like Allende took bits and pieces of contemporary Latin culture and politics and applied it all to her own fictional nation. If it is a fictional nation. Just a hypothesis.

Anyway, this is a very interesting thriller. I give it an 8 on the hard-to-put-down scale. I'm now inspired to look for more Allende books, maybe I'd pegged her wrong.


  1. What are examples of magical realism in the book Of Love and Shadows?

  2. Magical Realism is not the same as fantasy, nor is it a uniquely Latin American genre. It began in Europe as a reaction to expressionism. The place of it within Latin American literature has a lot to do with the culture and history of the region as well as some of the leading figures/ theorists of the movement. Alejo Carpentier called in Boroque. In Allende's case it seems to be an expression of the tragedies of her life... the assassination of her uncle, exile from Chile, the unnecessary death of her daughter, the death of her grandfather... and she has said in interviews that these things give her a strong belief in fate. I am not sure it is useful to Latin America to be glommed into the bland heading of fantasy that is not actually very accurate and that misses the whole point of their history.


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