The exposed beating of a heart, a miraculous extension of a life almost extinguished by the cruelty and recklessness of war. That beating heart a symbol of love, which keeps life bearable in times of turmoil and torture.
Thus, (in my words) begins Chilean-American author, Isabel Allende’s newest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea. (The title is a line from one of Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda’s poems, describing Chile’s physical appearance.)
NPR’s Marcela Davison Aviles states,
“The timing of this novel’s publication was either destined or clairvoyant — but in any case, Allende’s research and her personal experience inform its foundations with well-remembered history. Pablo Neruda did actually charter a rescue ship named the S.S. Winnipeg to rescue 2200 Spanish refugees. The 1973 coup d’etat against Chile’s first democratically elected socialist President, Salvador Allende (godfather to Isabel), really did happen with American support. And Augusto Pinochet’s junta — with its repression of civil liberties, kidnappings, torture of political prisoners, disappearances — serves as the historical backdrop to the many experiences of love, and stories of love Roser and Victor share.”
With such an accurate historical setting as outlined above, it’s amazing the book is not heavier and darker. “Allende allows her writing to breathe. It’s light and fast,” remarks Sam Buckland in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
And it does breathe, with the breath of the fresh air of hope. The book is a page-turner, with Allende’s focus on the power of people’s resilience and love, along with her remarkable storytelling.
One theme in the book is that of the mother, the primal protective nature that is prodded in unsettled times, such as times of civil war and military coups. Roser, the female protagonist in A Long Petal of the Sea, wields almost superhuman powers to make sure that the baby she is carrying, she is very pregnant, survives the trek from war-torn Barcelona, Spain to the hoped-for protection at the French border during the Spanish Civil War, which is when this story begins, in 1938.
I find great interest in the three main female characters in the story.
The first is Roser Bruguera, the most central and reliable character in this story, a woman with complete agency. She is mighty in her ability to persevere, because she has always had to. Born in abject poverty to goat herders, rescued as a girl by a caring and generous man, her survival instincts are already intact, and she then acquires a deep gratefulness that she never abandons. She is strong, smart, caring, loyal, and a gifted pianist. The sacrifices she makes, the life she’s forced to live as an exile, she would seem a saint if not for the point where she steps out of bounds for some joy and pleasure of her own!
Another female character is Laura del Solar, wife of prominent businessman Isidro del Solar, mother of five children. Wealthy enough to have domestic staff looking after the children and managing their many properties, Laura remains miserable. “She often envied her younger sister, sweet Teresa, a cloistered nun who spent her days in meditation, pious reading, and embroidering the trousseaus for brides-to-be in Chilean high society,” but Laura had to “fulfill her role as a dutiful wife” to husband Isidro who “was omnipresent: the universe revolved around him, his wishes and demands. That was how his grandfather and father had been, that was how all men were”(74).
Generations of entrenched patriarchy has removed all options, removed all choice from Laura’s life. She is a wife first, a mother second. She is nothing to herself. We feel her imprisonment, her longing and frustration.
It gets worse for Laura as she is manipulated and suffers immense guilt for the rest of her life. Oh yes, she experiences a brief bout of freedom after the passing of her husband, but soon dementia steals her precious time.
A third female character is Laura del Solar’s youngest daughter, Ofelia, a beautiful and rebellious young woman who says NO to the man who wants to take her as his wife.
But her spirit is dampened when she discovers she is pregnant by a secret lover:
“She felt so nervous, trapped, and ill that the details of her adventure with Victor, even the happiest ones, were distorted by her terror that she had ruined her life. For him, it had been pleasure with no risk; for her there was risk with little pleasure. And now finally she was suffering the consequences, while he could carry on with his life as if nothing had happened”(173).
The age-old injustice of who pays the bigger price. And then her spirit is permanently crushed when she is robbed of her child, lied to, told that her baby was born dead.
Ofelia might as well make her father happy, lest he beat her again, and marry the man she had resisted. It ends up not the worse existence in the world, but not the one she wanted for herself. The brave, bold young woman she was cannot exist in this culture.
In this story, the women with the means to escape before a situation gets too dangerous, who can be whisked away with their families and not return until the zone is safe and clear, they are not the women who are liberated and fulfilled. I wouldn’t wish the hell that Roser goes through on anyone (fleeing the Spanish Civil War to an internment camp in France, then exiled to Chile, fleeing the military takeover there to safety in Venezuela, and eventually back to Chile, forever an exile), but the point is: women are rarely protected, treated fairly and free anywhere, even when they appear to be.
But they persist.
Years later, main male character Victor, a medical doctor, working in one of “the Santiago shantytowns” shares this observation with Roser:
“What’s most impressive are the women… They’re steadfast, long-suffering, more combative than the men, mothers of their own children as well as the relatives they take in. They put up with the alcoholism, violence, and abandonment of their transient partners. But they do not give in”(272).
Allende proclaims she is but a storyteller. Indeed she is a superb storyteller, and so much more.
After her first novel was published in 1985, The House of Spirits, Alexander Coleman remarked, “With this spectacular first novel, Isabel Allende becomes the first woman to join what has been heretofore an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists.”
With 24 books, the majority novels, to her credit, Allende is a staunch member of said club!
Isabel Dulfano says of Allende:
“Her feminism is not militant, and in fact the feminist strategies she promotes feature unifying, collaborative, intergenerational female bonding as much as cooperation between the sexes to ameliorate the human condition”(823).
Dulfano also remarks:
“To date, Allende gives an outlet and exonerates the story of the other – traumatized veterans of war, tortured victims, ethnic minorities or oppressed groups – a silenced, powerless discourse – intruding on, particularly in Latin America, what Sharon Magnarelli states is “discourse controlled by the male, as both writer and character”(818).
Empowering women is a particular focus of Allende’s. After the devastating passing of her daughter, Paula, to a health issue in 1992 at age 29, she began The Isabel Allende Foundation whose mission is to “invest in the power of women and girls to secure reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence”(https://isabelallende.org/en/mission).
In 2009 at the University of Utah’s The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Allende delivered a talk entitled, In the Hearts of Women. She concluded her lecture asking:
“Before being decimated by white colonizers, the elders in Native American tribes, men and women, led the community. Before any important decision was made they considered the wisdom of seven generations before them, and then they asked: is this good for the children, and for the children of the children for seven generations to come? Nobody asks this question today.
“What kind of world do we want? We have desecrated a precious planet; the earth is calling. Humanity is wounded; our collective soul is also calling. Can we imagine a world where all the people and all species could thrive and be joyful?”
If Isabel Allende, after all that she has experienced before and after living as a Chilean exile in Venezuela and now the U.S., can imagine such a world, so should we.
This latest novel of hers, A Long Petal of the Sea, although based on the dark history of civil war and despots, imagines such an outcome, one powered by the beating heart of love.
Isabel Allende is a #Nasty Woman Writer.
Allende, Isabel. A Long Petal of the Sea. New York: Ballantine Books, 2020.
Aviles, Marcela Davison. ‘A Long Petal of the Sea’ Finds Love in a Time of Chaos ( https://www.npr.org/2020/01/27/799345645/a-long-petal-of-the-sea-finds-love-in-a-time-of-chaos).
Buckland, Sam. Love and Solitude in Exile: Isabel Allende’s “A Long Petal of the Sea.” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/love-and-solitude-in-exile-isabel-allendes-a-long-petal-of-the-sea/).
Dulfano, Isabel. “A Response to Isabel Allende’s Tanner Humanities Center Human Values Speech.” Women’s Studies, 42: 816, 2013.