A Catch-up Post: Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter

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.

What I’ve Been Reading: Allende, Austen, Anders, & Literary Links

You may ask, Is Mirabile Dictu finally done with Ladies’ Greek?

Yes, I am reading, reading, and reading novels again!

Here are brief remarks on a South American masterpiece by Isabel Allende, Jane Austen’s first novel, and and Charlie Jane Ander’s acclaimed science fiction.

1. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende’s stunning  first novel, The House of the Spirits, was translated by Magda Bogin and published in the U.S.  in 1985. This lush, witty, poetic masterpiece is laced with magic realism, and  reminiscent of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Allende narrates the story of the rise and fall of three generations of the Trueba family in a politically unstable  country in South America.  The strong women of the family ignore Esteban Trueba, the volatile family patriarch, and live their own lives. I am especially fond of Clara, the  psychic matriarch who opens their enormous house to eccentrics and adds on rooms and staircases that go nowhere; her daughter, Blanca, a potter who teaches Mongoloids; and her radical granddaughter, Alba, who  feeds the homeless and hides refugees in the wake of a fascist coup. Even the tyrannical patriarch, Esteban Trueba, a landowner and far-right politician, is appalled in old age by violence of the new regime and begins to understand the women. Not only was I reminded of how very great Allende is, but I am eagerly looking forward to her new novel, In the Midst of Winter (October).

2. A rereading of Jane Austen’s Northanger AbbeyThe heroine, Catherine Morland, is one of Austen’s most comical characters, and I enjoyed my rereading of this charming little book.  Catherine, a fan of Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho and other “horrid” Gothic novel, hopes to find a ghost or secret manuscript when she visits the Tilneys at the elegant  Northanger Abbey. Her witty boyfriend, Henry Tilney, one of the very few of Austen’s heroes I heartily approve, brings Catherine down to earth when she gets carried away.  He, too, is a novel reader, and has a good sense of humor.  He says,

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  I have read all Mrs. Radliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure.  The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again,–I remember finishing it in two days–my hair standing on end the whole time.”

3.  Charlie Jane Anders’s All the Birds in the Sky.  A nominee for the Hugo Award, this  science fiction novel was highly lauded.   Parts are charming, parts are a bit awkward and rambling, but it should appeal to fans of Harry Potter and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy.  The story of the relationship between Patricia, a witch, and Laurence, a brilliant techie, includes lots of magic, science, sex, and global warming.  Though this novel seems to me very slight, it is a good weekend read.


AND NOW FOR TWO LITERARY LINKS.  When I spotted an online review at the TLS of Ann Hood’s bibliomemoir, Morningstar,I paid a month’s subscription fee to read the review.  Well, I will also benefit by reading other reviews for subscribers only.   I loved Hood’s memoir, and hope others will enjoy it, too.  (You can read my post on Morningstar here.)

Jenny Hendrix writes in the TLS,

…[Hood] credits her childhood bookishness with setting her on a path to the literary life of her dreams. Hood reflects on ten works of fiction that guided her through adolescence in the late 1960s and early 70s, and her discovery through them of how to live “the mysterious, unnam­able, big dream life I wanted”: “My parents learned about life from hardship”, she writes. “Me? I learned from books.”

In her blue-collar Rhode Island mill town, Hood was an oddity in a household of non-readers; in her hard-working Italian immigrant family, books were seen as a waste of time and money. But, after she had enjoyed a chance encounter with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, literature opened Hood’s eyes to possibilities beyond her immediate milieu. She learnt what it meant to be a writer from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; learnt to love language via the poet Rod McKuen; and credits John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath with teaching her how to write. There were other, extra-literary lessons as well, in subjects her family didn’t discuss. As the Vietnam War drew to a close, the novel Johnny Got His Gun sharpened her political thinking; the free-loving teens of The Harrad Experiment opened her eyes to the mechanics of sex. Together, these books built Hood an off-ramp from what she experienced as the dull and uninspiring trajectory of her peers: baptized in the church at one end of the town’s main street, married at the club in the middle, and buried by the funeral parlour at the same street’s far end.

The tough women criticizing women at the TLS always find a few negative things to say, and so Hendrix calls the book “heart-warming,” which is not the worst thing I’ve ever heard!  Overall, she liked the book.

If you like free reviews, and don’t we all, you can read the insightful review at  The Minneapolis Star Tribune .  Laurie Hertzel, the book page editor, aptly describes Hood’s graceful book.

In these 10 appealing essays, Hood deftly recounts pivotal moments in her early life, recalling not just what happened, but how she felt and how wonderful it was that the right book seemed to appear at the right time. “Once again,” she writes, “my world had been cracked open by a book.”

Hood’s book is actually one of my favorite books of the year.

Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real


I missed the so-called” Latin American boom” of the ’60s and ’70s. I was not seduced by magic realism.  In fact, I did not finish Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude on a beach vacation in Mexico where I got the worst sunburn of my life.  ( I wasn’t happy till I found a bookstore in Veracruz.)  It wasn’t until  years later that I discovered the surreal stories of Borges.  Then I fell in love with  Garcia Marquez,  Julio Cortazar, Pablo Neruda, and Octavio Paz.

I realized recently I have read only a  few Latin American women writers; in the last decade, only the brilliant Isabel Allende and Angelica Gorodischer, the Argentine science fiction writer who has been translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, come to mind.

And then I found this stunning anthology, Short Stories by Latin American Women:  The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata.  It includes the work of 31 writers, among them Allende, Clarice Lispector, and  Josefina Pla.   The stories are so marvelous that I tried to find their books.  Very few of these wrtiers have been translated.

Men have traditionally dominated Latin American literature.  And I wonder if that is still true of the translators.

This book is a gem:  at the end, there are short biographies of all the authors and translators. Isabel Allende writes in the preface:  “For women in South America, setting down a short story is like screaming out loud; it breaks the rules, violates the code of silence into which we were born.  Through these stories, each author selected by Dr. Zapata shouts out defiantly and reveals our experience to the world.”

Allende’s short story, “An Act of Vengeance” is my favorite. Her always colorful, poetic language is interwoven seamlessly with a plot made vivid by magic realism.    The style reminds me of that of Louise Erdrich, and the opening sentence is worth the price of the book.

On the glorious noonday when Dulce Rosa Orellano was crowned with the jasmines of Carnival Queen, the mothers of the other candidates murmured that it was unfair for her to win just because she was the only daughter of the most powerful man in the entire province, Senator Anselmo Orellano.

Dulce Rosa is beautiful, not so much physically as for her charm, grace, and infectious happiness.  Tales of her beauty have spread, and poets in distant cities praise her. Even the guerilla Tadeo Cespedes  has heard of her, but never dreams he’ll meet her.  And then Tadeo raids the town of Santa Theresa with 120 men, and kills  the senator, who is the last man standing.  The sight of Dulce Rosa drives Tadeo into a frenzy, and he rapes her. As she washes off his semen, she vows she will get revenge.  Thirty years go by…and the plot twists and turns.

In  “Culinary Lesson,” Roario Castellanos’ humorous monologue is reminiscent of a Dorothy Parker story mixed with the musings in Sue Kaufman’s feminist classic, The Diary of a Mad Housewife.  The heroine cannot cook, and cannot understand the cookbooks, and I empathize.  In Rosario Ferre’s “A Poisoned Tale,” a fairy tale book turns out to be lethal for an evil stepmother.  In “Blame the Tlaxcaltes,” a wretched housewife lives in two different times, with two different husbands, and only the maid understands she does not belong in the present.

I could go on, on, and on, but you’ll have to read it.  I  am giving it to everyone for Christmas.

And it’s Women in Translation Month.  Finally, something I can get behind!