I am sick with a cold. Propped up on pillows, coughing and sniffling, binge-watching Halt and Catch Fire on Netflix, I try to ignore the chaos in the bedroom. There are three tea cups, a headless Jo/Little Women figurine (knocked on the floor by a curious and very wild cat), and a box of Kleenex on the bedside table. An untidy stack of paperback mysteries and a review copy of an intellectual novel I rashly promised to blog about are on the bed. (Do I ethically have to review it?) My favorite cat has overturned the wastebasket and is delicately ripping the Kleenex. Another cat has shed white hair all over the nest of an old black sweater. I am overwhelmed. I am too sick to clean. Nobody will clean if I don’t clean. How can I clean if I can’t breathe? Finally I drag myself to the doctor and get some antibiotics.
While I wait for the antibiotics to kick in, I must catch up with a “review-ette”of Isabel Allende’s lovely new novel, In the Midst of Winter.
The Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende is a dazzling writer, and her translators serve her brilliantly. As a best-selling writer Allende has straddled a fine line between literary and popular fiction, thrilling readers with her graceful style and riveting stories, and earning the praise of critics. In her famous first novel, The House of the Spirits, she astutely blended magic realism with history in the breathtaking story of three generations of a prominent family in an unnamed Latin American country.
But not all her books utilize magic realism. Her last novel, The Japanese Lover, was realistic, and so is her latest novel. In her new gorgeously-written novel, In the Midst of Winter, translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson, she deftly interweaves the complex narratives of two Latin American women and an American man, shifting back and forth in time between the present and the 1970s.
The book commences during a blizzard that shuts down New York. Sixty-two-year-old Lucia, a visiting lecturer at NYU from Chile, is freezing in the basement apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, cuddled up with Marcelo, her Chihuahua, and wondering why the hell Richard, her landlord and boss at NYU, is so miserly? Couldn’t he turn up the heat? To be honest, she had thought that, old friends that they were, they would keep each other warm as lovers.
Lucia is a warm, optimistic woman who still hopes to find love, despite her husband’s desertion of her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the recent loss of her mother, and the decades-old anguish over her brother’s disappearance after the 1973 coup in Chile.
There are few older heroines in literature, and Allende captures the imperfections that we women are taught to ignore but must learn to accept. Most important, Lucia knows how to love herself.
Lucia still entertained the fantasies of a young girl despite the fact that she was almost sixty-two. She had a wrinkled neck, dry skin, and flabby arms; her knees were heavy; and she had become resigned to watching her waist disappear because she did not have the discipline to combat the process in the gym. Although she had youthful breasts, they were not hers. She avoided looking at herself naked, because she felt much better when she was dressed. Aware of which colors and styles favored her, she kept to them rigorously and was able to purchase a complete outfit in twenty minutes, without ever allowing curiosity to distract her. Like photographs, the mirror was an implacable enemy, because both showed her immobile, with her flaws mercilessly exposed. She thought that if she had any attraction, it lay in movement, for she was flexible and had a grace that was unearned, since she had done nothing to foster it. She was as sweet-toothed and lazy as an odalisque…
Richard, the human rights professor who can’t turn up the thermostat, is a piece of work. He is very handsome and kind, but very uptight, an absent-minded cat owner who does everything on a rigid schedule, because he is afraid of falling back into alcoholism. He does not want to take any emotional risks, because he ruined lives when he did that before. He has a horrendous past, which we learn about later.
Richard and Lucia become closer under tragic circumstances. Richard calls Lucia for help after his car collides with a Lexus driven by a Guatemalan women, Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented worker/nanny who has borrowed her boss’s car–and she is hysterical because there is a corpse in the trunk! She doesn’t know how it got there. Richard needs a translator, and it is Lucia who pulls everything together. She and Richard devise a plot to save Evelyn and get rid of the car and body, and during a harrowing road trip to upstate New York, the three become friends. Despite the horror of the past and the present, there are many comic moments, and Lucia and Richard finally have no choice but to share a bed.
Allende creates real living, breathing characters, and we care deeply about them. The details of the violence in South America are horrifying and very real, and reading about Evelyn’s grueling journey across the border led by a “coyote” makes you want to protest all over again that terrible idea of building a wall! Allende has devoted a lifetime to telling the stories of Latin American women and helping refugees. She witnessed the violence of the military coup in Chile in 1973, when her cousin Salvador Allende, president of the socialist country, was ousted by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who instituted his dictatorship. She and her family fled to Venezuela in 1975 . She has been an American citizen since 1993.
Anyway, In the Midst of Winter is tragic but also full of joie de vivre. I plan to give it to various women friends of different tastes, because everyone will love it. My only criticism? The ending works out a tad too well, like Barbara Kingsolver’s early books. But I was spellbound by this brilliant, moving novel.