This is the last work by Isabel Allende that I intend to read until I can get my hands on The Sum of Our Days (this is not a birthday hint, I am a library partisan, and eventually a library courtesan) which will act to me as a sort of part two for this memoir. I don’t usually like memoirs, and I don’t review anything that isn’t good — all you need to know about the quality. I am going to spoil this book because I know that you will probably never read it. Should you defy the odds you won’t have me in mind while traveling through the lush, illuminated swamp gas of Allende’s history.

What makes it work? Well, that is what we are here to examine, dear reader. The book revolves around a porphyria-induced coma into which Allende’s eponymous daughter has fallen. Allende’s intention is a one-way communication with Paula consisting of family history.

What is so compelling in Allende’s novels is that she begins her characters, even minor ones, a generation or two prior to their debut in the action. I, for example, would start somewhere like “Major Walter Fleming Hamilton kept himself mysteriously crisp in the muddy humidity of Panama.” This makes her characters larger in the sense that forever after we are waiting for their genesis, lovers have to meet, parents must be born– this is the locomotion of pages turning, so whenever the person in question finally arrives, if only to hand another some coffee or steal a wallet it is for us a delight, an accomplishment. Each one of us is, unlike Major Hamilton, muddy with the past and other lives. She makes no exception for Paula, alternating the narrative between Chile long-ago and a metre from Paula’s hospital bed.

It is said that the size of your memory (and your language, according to Wiggtenstein) determines the size of your reality, and perhaps the reverse can be true: The more you are remembered the more real you are. Allende is trying to infuse her daughter with memory to make her more real, force her persistence in a network so much larger. The hospital scenes are difficult to handle for anyone with a working imagination. It is too easy to put yourself with whoever your love mad and stupid with an overnight beard, holding a dead hand in your own, and blowing cool breaths onto the softening wax wings that make up life. Well, it was that way for me at least, and Allende (most of the time) kindly drew me back into the past before the first tears managed to fall into my seat on BART.

The closer we come to the present, however, the more urgent the situation becomes. In the novel, and in the past world, we are spiraling toward the day when Paula will wake up. Yet in reality the doctors are using words like brain damage and vegetable. What is so wonderful, and ultimately so sad, is that Allende manages to write non-fiction that has this sort of character and motion. The story is much more interesting than looking for what in her life made her a great writer, or techniques that she uses. Yes, learning about her terrible grammar, late start, and gallons of correction fluid is fun, but it is certainly not the main event as it would be in most other cases.

Paula does not get better and in Part II it hits like a punch when Allende stops addressing the book to her daughter. She lets us know exactly what we are in for when she starts using that horrible third person: Paula is not going to wake up, or if she does she will not be the same. Still, with Allende even when the destination is sadness it is not necessarily depression. Depression is oppressive; it projects itself forever into the future and frankly is the culmination of far too much literature. Honestly, aren’t you a little tired of reading about corrupt, isolating systems that you will never meaningfully stand up to? (read: aren’t you tired of British literature) What Allende offers is a kind of tolerable sadess that is lush and a little romantic– the stuff that when endured and recalled will transform the past from biography to aphrodisiac. Kind of how when I imagine my future I picture my first heart attack: alone in a Belgian park and fallen into tangles with the sharp parts of a bicycle, calling out for help in my charlatan’s Flemish before a long recovery and return to an empty United States. This acts as a kind of satisfying tragedy because A) it does not generate disappointment by expecting it and B) because in reading Allende I realize how the meetings and the stories that will place me in that park will be so valuble. They cannot heal my heart or wake up Paula Allende, but they can make her real for a universe of millions who will hope for her after she has already gone.

Excellent parts:
When Tio Ramon meets Isabels mother and falls in love.
Tio Ramon’s princely heritage, and royal motorcade.
Tio Ramon in general.
Exiled life in Venezuela.
Willy Gordon and his Mexican Bandido Spanish.
New-age California hooey healing methods.
Isabel’s reaction to Paula’s Husband.
Tata’s cold showers and wish to die with dignity.