"A Long Petal of the Sea" by Isabel Allende: A flawed epic set in troubled times

Ballantine, 336 pages, $28

My Cuban mother is worried about how you’ll react to this review. “Sweetheart, can you get out of doing the Allende book,” she texted, followed by, “Don’t be angry, it’s just a thought” and a sparkly heart.

I wanted to review A Long Petal of the Sea because I respect its author for her humanitarianism and literary success, which are entwined. Isabel Allende has written 24 books, which have been translated into 42 languages, selling more than 74 million copies and garnering more than 60 awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Some have criticized Allende simply for being an international best-seller, but as a novelist, I admire her steady production amid reports of her 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. writing schedule. As a reader, I seek stories with scholarly underpinnings and historical relevance, and on that front, A Long Petal of the Sea delivers.

In her relentlessly linear narrative of more than 60 years of Spanish and Chilean history, Allende takes great pains to describe the real, lived effects of two dictatorships. Beginning with the Franco regime’s oppressive rise to tyranny, Allende revisits the story of more than 2,000 Spanish refugees who boarded the Winnipeg on a fraught voyage organized by the poet Pablo Neruda to his native Chile.

Also aboard are a pianist named Roser and her freshly minted husband, Victor, a medic who persuades her to marry him because it is a precondition of gaining a berth on the Winnipeg (in a melodramatic twist, he is also the brother of her baby’s dead father).

With sentimental epics set in troubled times, Allende has feminized a Latin American canon that enshrines men. Born in Peru to Chilean parents, Allende became an American citizen in 1993, 20 years after the CIA-backed coup that overthrew a democratically elected Chilean president, Salvador Allende (the cousin of Isabel’s father) and installed the ruthless dictator Augusto Pinochet. The author lived through these events, which sent more than 100,000 other Chileans into a diaspora that, for her, began in Venezuela.

I myself was raised in a household run by Cuban exiles, and sought writers who could empathize with my family history, which also involves migration under duress from Spain to a country soon rocked by a coup. Mine was a layered, nostalgic love for Allende, one shaded by the Hollywood adaptation of her 1982 debut novel, The House of the Spirits.

But in A Long Petal of the Sea, no amount of summary — including pages and pages of historical and political background in which every conclusion feels foregone — is enough to save the dialogue that follows from exposition. Less interested in scene than in sweep, Allende describes her characters’ emotions with great detail, writing in third person with an omniscience that drains any wonder from their choices and interactions.

Hearts do things like race. People break into sobs. The attributions are laden with unnecessary and burdensome adjectives — “said an emotional Roser” — in an authorial shorthand that results in stage directions better suited to a screenplay.

It’s not possible to spoil this book, so I won’t be issuing any alerts about a subplot in which Victor impregnates Ofelia del Solar, the young and beautiful scion of a wealthy Chilean family.

When the brief romance, likened to “a plant without roots that was bound to wither,” yields a baby, Ofelia’s father has this reaction: “The blood rushed to Isidro del Solar’s head so swiftly he thought his brain would explode.” The family soon yields to the schemes of a priest, who manipulates Ofelia’s mother, a nervous woman too focused on God and the girth of her neck to understand that she’s being used, both by the priest and the novel, which closes with a neat twist.

I like it that Allende pays attention to the lives of women, but I didn’t, at any point, forget that these characters were fictional. Though she shared their thoughts constantly, their interiority felt forced, falsified into caricature sketches meant to add emotional heft to scenes quickly overwhelmed by summary. The most realistic part of these female characters was how they worried about and were criticized for their weight, and I hated that truth, for it revealed everything around it to be either treacle or propaganda, and I had to read to the end regardless.

A Long Petal of the Sea is a draft of the book it could have been if the corporations profiting from its publication had invested in a rigorous editorial process to support Allende’s noblesse oblige. We need better depictions of people enduring dictatorships in eras so like our own, in which refugees are dehumanized, separated from their children, and made to live in camps.

Don’t be angry. These are just my thoughts.

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