With 25 best-selling novels and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, it is no secret that Isabel Allende is a literary tour de force. Her latest work, “Violeta,” gives her fans many of the hallmarks they have come to expect from the author: heart-wrenching but honest depictions of the Pinochet regime and complex, interwoven, endlessly interesting family dynamics. But that’s just the problem. Allende’s prolific abilities become repetitive in “Violeta,” ultimately producing a book that loses itself in monotonous historical scenes and rotating characters, and which fails to stand out in any specific way.
“Violeta” is a bildungsroman that follows the life of its eponymous character from birth until near-death, a period of 100 years. Violeta lives a thoroughly whirlwind life. She marries three different men, experiences the rise and fall of Chilean President Salvador Allende (Isabel Allende’s own godfather), the subsequent military Junta and its aftermath, and raises two children to adulthood. She also starts a housing materials empire, and lives a life of adventure and intrigue until she predicts she will die in 2020.
The challenge with a story that tracks one character through so many years is that the plot is necessarily as meandering as a life. There is no climax nor much rhythmic flow to the story, merely milestones in a long series of episodes. On top of that, the story is written as an account that Violeta is telling Camilo, her grandson and adopted son. The compounded plot-as-life and the feedback loop created by the main-character-as-narrator structure gives the story a didactic mood. Violeta appears to edit herself, inserting pithy aphorisms and bits of advice rather than lush description. This style, heavy with “telling” and light on the “showing” becomes exhausting as the reader endures literally one hundred years of Violeta’s thoughts.
A lot of buzz surrounding this book was due to the fact that it is one of the first books written during the coronavirus pandemic to include it as a historical event. This advance is somewhat misleading, as Covid-19 only appears at the very end of the story as a neat bookend for Violeta’s childhood in the aftermath of the Spanish Flu outbreak of the early 1920s. Over the course of her lifetime, Violeta lives through many important political and historical events, including pandemics, wars, and natural disasters. Ultimately, however, the mix of historical evidence and personal anecdotes are crudely blended, causing the narrative to fundamentally lack cohesion.
In the acknowledgements section of “Violeta,” Allende references Wikipedia as an invaluable source. The issue is that “Violeta” reads, at times, like an embellished Wikipedia page, taking well-known scenes of Chilean history and inserting random personal details that could plausibly be attributed to one of the many characters in this novel. For example, Violeta hears about a neighbor being abused by her husband and creates an entire foundation to support survivors of abuse that becomes nationally recognized. The reader never knows why Violeta is so moved by this neighbor’s story, nor how she created an entire foundation, nor does her apparent life’s work take more than a sidebar role in the overall narrative. The episode appears to exist only so that Allende can conveniently comment on bureaucratic corruption in Chile post-Pinochet. Or when Violeta’s daughter, Nieves, becomes embroiled with drugs and sex trafficking in Las Vegas, it feels more like a crude attempt to situate the timeline in the 1970s than meaningful plot development.
It is hard to categorize “Violeta” because, like much of Allende’s work, the scope is staggering. To address an entire life in 319 pages is a significant undertaking. Violeta herself also eludes definition. From a petulant child to a wise grandmother, the reader watches her develop as the decades pass. Allende doesn’t shy away from life’s more difficult moments, like when Violeta experiences multiple familial tragedies, and is liberal in her depiction of more private moments. Violeta is a sexual woman well into her old age, which is refreshing and empowering, but Allende’s liberalism can be contradictory and problematic. When Violeta speaks of her sexuality, it is mostly to explain her connection to the current man of her life; she only feels beautiful if a man desires her. The story’s token queer couple, Josephine Taylor and Teresa Rivas, seem to exist to merely appeal to audiences in 2022 rather than as a worthwhile story in their own right. Make no mistake, fiction written in 2022 does not need to be “liberal” or to have certain representation or morals or anything of the sort to be valuable. But at times, “Violeta” seems too preoccupied with appealing to a certain audience than telling a cohesive story.
Overall, “Violeta” is an impressive undertaking that combines a century of history into a relatively slim novel. However, a lack of narrative flow and its rote similarity to Allende’s other, more complicated works makes this book a step below the masterful literary fiction that made her famous.
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