I have yet to read an Allende book that I don’t like. This one is short, but there’s a lot packed into those pages, and I had a wonderful time with itI have yet to read an Allende book that I don’t like. This one is short, but there’s a lot packed into those pages, and I had a wonderful time with it.
This is a book about life under a military dictatorship in an unnamed country that can only be Chile. Irene, a reporter, and Francisco, a psychologist-turned-photographer, are forced to confront the ugliest side of the regime when a teenage girl disappears immediately after an interview.
As is to be expected from an Allende book, the plot meanders a bit and gives life stories of minor characters; I love this, as it results in a richly textured and interesting cast. They are a diverse bunch, from a wealthy family struggling to maintain their traditional lifestyle, to middle-class immigrants, to impoverished farmers. Without exception, they’re vivid and well-developed, and I was easily drawn into their stories. There is of course a romance between the two protagonists, which I quite enjoyed (okay, I’m a little in love with Francisco myself).
Overall, this is a well-written, well-crafted book, with such a three-dimensional setting and characters that it’s only too easy to relate to their situations and wonder what you would do in similar circumstances. This book seems to get less attention than many of Allende’s other works, perhaps because it was published nearly 30 years ago, but it is still relevant today. I didn’t love it as much as, say, House of the Spirits, but it’s still an excellent novel and a worthy read....more
This is an eminently forgettable story of Cuba's past and of modern-day Cuban immigrants in Miami. Not terrible, but everything here has been done befThis is an eminently forgettable story of Cuba's past and of modern-day Cuban immigrants in Miami. Not terrible, but everything here has been done before, and better, by other authors.
This is one of those books that alternates every chapter between present-day and historical storylines, in which the modern-day character learns the story of the historical ones. The modern chapters feature Cecilia, an angsty young Cuban reporter living in Miami. Cecilia meets an old woman in a Cuban bar who begins to tell her stories, following three families which represent different groups of immigrants who relocated to Cuba and contributed to its culture: one Chinese, one Spanish and one African. For the first 150 pages or so these stories are separate (and all together get about as much time as Cecilia), but they begin intermarrying until by the end there's one historical thread alternating with the modern one.
Unless you're a big fan of Cuban music, which appears frequently, there's really nothing about this book that would compel you to seek it out: not the superficial and predictable plot, not the bland and underdeveloped characters, not the vague impressions of Havana that do little to immerse the reader in the historical period. Beginning with Cecilia, though: a perennial risk with novels structured this way is that too little happens in the modern-day story, or that the events that do occur are too trivial, to compare to the historical thread. This book falls into that trap, as Cecilia does little beyond angst about the fact that she has some bad memories of Cuba (never explored in any detail), and yet the country is still a part of her. She also dabbles in the supernatural, which appears frequently in the book without much affecting the plot. There's no real momentum to her story, and she spends a lot of time on mundane activities like washing dishes and paying tolls. Her supporting cast consists of a large number of minor characters who fulfill essentially the same roles: the old woman and her great-aunt, who both tell her stories about the past; her two male friends, whose only role is to get her out of the house; the four young women who provide hints about supernatural phenomena. She also has two love interests, though the book spends a lot of time on the one that doesn't work out and hardly any on the one who apparently will.
As for the historical stories, the book merely skims the surface, often skipping decades at a time; this part follows around seven main characters, none of whom have much personality and all of whose stories are rushed, reading like weak summaries of other novels. There are a lot of family sagas and immigrant stories out there, and this book brings nothing new to the table, nor does it have the sort of depth or insight that would justify another version of an oft-told tale. And though it spans more than a century, we learn virtually nothing of history. The fact that I didn't even realize until halfway through that the African and Spanish stories begin some 40 years before the Chinese one is indicative of the amount of historical detail included.
Given the title I should mention the romances: everybody is supposed to be in an epic romance with someone, and this takes up a great deal of the plot, but readers aren't given much reason to invest in these relationships ourselves. Though, in fairness, I like to see fictional romances develop more, the opposite of the tendency in Latin American literature, which often features all-consuming love-at-first-sight.
In the end, this book just doesn't stand out. The writing is fine, though not brilliant. The dialogue is adequate, though even that can't bring these flat characters to life. The plot is enough of a soap opera that if you happen to be stuck somewhere with this book as your only reading material, it would probably keep you occupied and be better than nothing. But fortunately for you, this is unlikely to ever happen, and you'll miss nothing by skipping this one entirely....more
I love Isabel Allende's writing: I read Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits, and found this one good but not quite up to the quality of the oI love Isabel Allende's writing: I read Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits, and found this one good but not quite up to the quality of the other two; lacking a distinct plot of its own, it mainly serves to tie the other two (standalone) books together. Still, it was an enjoyable book: Allende's character development and writing style are excellent as always, and I'm in the camp that loves to use fiction as a way to learn about the history of other countries, which this one certainly provides.
Still, the structure was somewhat odd. I would describe it as three novellas tied together to make a novel:
1. The continuation of the story of Eliza and Tao Chi'en (and company) from Daughter of Fortune. On the positive side, we finally get that love scene that went missing from the previous book; on the other hand, so many beloved characters come to tragic ends that I'm not sure bringing them back was a good thing.
2. The backstory on Severo and Nivea (and company) from House of the Spirits. This was my favorite part of the book: I liked them in House of the Spirits and like them even more now, and as it turns out, there was a lot we didn't know! This is also the plotline where we get to read about 19th century Chilean wars, politics and such.
3. The story of Aurora, the narrator, who does not appear in either of the other books. While not as well-developed as many of the other characters, she's the glue that holds the rest of it together. Her life is interesting enough, but the truth of the Big Terrible Secret from her childhood is obvious from quite early on (perhaps intentionally so), and she lacks the strength and character of the heroines in Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits. I didn't think that setting her up as the narrator worked very well; she winds up describing in detail conversations that took place before she was born, other people's sex lives, etc., and generally stretching credibility.
Others have mentioned Paulina del Valle as the main character, and I think there's some truth to that (although I see her in more of a supporting role): she raises Aurora and is around for most of the book, and certainly has the stronger personality of the two. She's one of those trademark Allende characters who make fascinating character studies, but are hard to like.
I would recommend this book, but primarily to those who have read some of Allende's other work and liked it; if not, I'd recommend starting with House of the Spirits, which is her masterpiece. Come back to this one once you've read that and Daughter of Fortune and are looking for the rest of the story. ...more
I rather enjoyed this book, as a fun way to practice my Spanish. But I have no idea why anybody thinks it’s capital-L-Literature.
Like Water for ChocolI rather enjoyed this book, as a fun way to practice my Spanish. But I have no idea why anybody thinks it’s capital-L-Literature.
Like Water for Chocolate is a total soap opera, complete with several love triangles, fights over babies, embarrassing diseases and people having sex on horseback while galloping across a field. (Really!) I won’t come down too hard on it for this, because Esquivel is in control of it; the resemblance to a telenovela is clearly intentional. It’s also a novel about cooking, divided up into twelve chapters by month (although it’s unclear why, as the novel covers far more than a year and events tend not to take place in the month corresponding to the chapter in which they appear). Each chapter begins with a recipe, each one crucial to the story, where the protagonist is able to express herself and exert control over her world primarily through her cooking.
Overall, this book is guilty pleasure reading--the writing is simple even in the original Spanish (although still much better than the awful English translation), the characters archetypical, and although it’s set during the Mexican Revolution, we learn almost nothing about the time period, which mostly serves as a backdrop for the parallel rebellion against authority in the De la Garza household. There is some humor, which foodies in particular will appreciate: “Just let me take this off the burner, and then you can go right back to crying, okay?” says one character in an emotional moment. The magic realism feels a bit awkward, but is at least consistent, and the idea of an oppressed woman rebelling through her cooking--which often has magical properties--explains some of the attention from literary critics.
But most readers will be more interested in the romance, which caters to a particular taste. I suspect this book is popular in large part because of current trends in fictional romances: these days we like to see reasons for our protagonists’ falling in love, we want to be shown that they’re compatible, we want their sexual relationships to be characterized by mutual respect and clear consent. I include myself in that “we,” while understanding that for many, that just isn’t very romantic. Maybe you like love at first sight, that strikes like lightning and has just as much logic behind it; maybe you like sex scenes that look like rape, but aren’t, because the woman actually wants it. If you are that kind of reader, you’ll likely enjoy the romance here much more than I did. (Although, taste aside, the main love interest still has no positive qualities, except perhaps for consistency. He’s jealous and whiny and has no courage, common sense or strength of character.)
Overall, this is a fairly entertaining book, especially if you are a foodie and/or want to read a Mexican soap opera. The positive response from literary types still baffles me, though....more