Violeta by Isabel Allende

Author:  Isabel Allende
Translator: Frances Riddle

The cover to Violeta by Isabel AllendeNew York. Ballantine Books. 2022. 319 pages.

ISABEL ALLENDE OPENS her novel Violeta with a quote from Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our protagonist, Violeta’s, life certainly is wild, as she lives through major historical events such as the Cuban revolution, the Great Depression, the Chilean dictatorship, and the women’s suffrage movement. Told in the form of a memoir written for her beloved grandson, Camilo, Violeta recounts her one hundred years of life, bookended by two pandemics.

Born during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1920 and passing away from old age during the start of Covid-19 in 2020, Violeta Del Valle could not have possibly planned for what fate had in store. Although she was born into a well-known, wealthy family, the 1929 Wall Street crash led to her family’s exile from their home in the capital. Violeta quickly learns her time as a spoiled child is over and begins her new rural life in Nahuel, located in southern Chile, where she thrives. This early juxtaposition of lifestyles dependent on her family’s current economic status establishes Violeta’s pragmatic, although hardly cynical, outlook on life. In Nahuel, her mentors repeat the saying, “It’s much easier to be generous with a full belly than an empty one.” Violeta assures Camilo, “I’ve never believed that, though, because I’ve seen that both kindness and cruelty exist everywhere.”

Life goes on, and Violeta’s story includes a marriage to a German man during World War II, an affair with a famous pilot, which leads to her two children, the running of a business despite the limitations placed on a woman’s right to do so, and surviving the military dictatorship in Chile. Allende manages to make readers feel as though they’re right next to Violeta on her journey; it’s easy to forget it is a work of fiction and not an intimate memoir. Violeta’s travels range from rural to urban with in-depth looks at Cuba, Miami, Los Angeles, Norway, and, above all, her cherished home country of Chile. Each location is described so vividly they almost feel familiar, thanks to Violeta’s bright recountings and personal relationship with each locale.

For every incredible experience Violeta has, there are just as many tragic ones. Allende tackles topics such as sexual assault, grief, poverty, domestic abuse, natural disaster, addiction, homophobia, and political unrest in her heartfelt prose, to name a few. The closeness we feel with Violeta makes these subjects feel all the more real and painful. Reading about her grief and struggle is like hearing from a close friend. By the end, we know Violeta’s no-nonsense attitude isn’t cynical but rather the worldview of a passionate and driven woman who has seen it all and knows there is no time to waste.

Amidst the turmoil Violeta faces both internally and externally, her story urges us to seek out the precious amongst the wild. If she can do it, we certainly have a shot.

Alexandra McManus
University of Oklahoma

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