Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Barbara Kingsolver

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 878 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Barbara Kingsolver

Critical Review by Barbara Kingsolver

SOURCE: "Fish Fall from the Sky for a Reason," in The New York Times Book Review, January 20, 1991, p. 13.

Kingsolver is an American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and poet. In the review below, she discusses the plots of various stories in The Stories of Eva Luna, calling them "miracles of construction."

In years past, I've received and given out this common advice for writers: Let your novel's important characters dictate their life stories to you, beginning with childhood; write it all down; then throw it away and start the novel. The Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has now gone one better by having one of her characters write a book. Fortunately for her readers, she didn't throw it away but sent it off to her publisher.

The Stories of Eva Luna are ostensibly tales told by the eponymous heroine of Ms. Allende's third novel to her lover, Rolf Carlé. The 23 very short stories unfold in the same confident, chaotic style as the novels that have endeared Ms. Allende to a world of readers. But The Stories of Eva Luna have only the faintest superstructure connecting them and so must stand up to more scrutiny: in a novel, the author needs to hook us only once; in a collection, each story must win us over anew, which is more work for everyone. There's a reason why story collections are rare visitors to the best-seller lists.

Eva Luna's stories are delicate, their images akin to poetry: the Pope in his glass-enclosed car, for example, is "a white porpoise in an aquarium"; Tierra del Fuego tapers off into "a rosary of islands." And, like poetry, this prose requires careful attention. Early on, the book seemed to me like a plate of hors d'oeuvres, each one tempting, some as exquisite as caviar, but not really adding up to a meal. I tried, however, to defer judgment until I'd finished everything on the tray. And once I'd adjusted to the pace and small scale, it became clear that many of the stories were perfectly crafted and thematically rich, whole meals by themselves.

The settings sample Latin America from the humid Caribbean to the Antarctic tip of Argentina. And the themes range even farther, from the extinction of Amazon tribes to a modern theory that love conquers cancer. One story even addresses a decades-old rumor, coming out of Guatemala that Indian children taken from destitute parents have been murdered so their bodies can be sold in the United States, piece by piece, as organ donations. Ms. Allende frames these improbable yet entirely possible scenarios with magical imagery and tells them in a detached, mythic voice.

What the stories have in common is the fact that they are driven by plot. Rarely does the author cede more than a sentence or two to developing her characters, who tend to be fascinating archetypes. Her plots, though, are miracles of construction, all the more impressive for their brevity. Destiny—and its executrix, love—nearly always form the subtext. The very first sentence in "The Judge's Wife" tells us that the story's hero, Nicolás Vidal, "had always known that a woman would cost him his life." The second sentence tells who that woman will be. But the tale remains suspenseful through every turn, leading finally to the understanding that Vidal's lifelong avoidance of women, in hopes of saving himself, has led him precisely to his demise.

Many other stories are similarly constructed—their endings are built into an opening line or a title, but they still hold their surprises in a stunning last sentence. "Phantom Palace," which recalls the simple, ubiquitous ghost stories of childhood, also captures in the sinews of its plot a commentary on the healing power of nature and the transience of seemingly permanent evils, including bad marriages and dictators-for-life.

In the moving final tale, "And of Clay Are We Created," a little girl trapped up to her neck in a mud pit becomes the focal point for journalists covering a disastrous avalanche. They bring in every conceivable kind of camera and communications gear so that her brave, pathetic image can be beamed to the nation's living rooms—but somehow no one can find a pump to free her. The sole reporter who must look at her directly, rather than through a lens, is changed forever.

These stories, lyrically translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, remain fundamentally foreign, and thus of enormous value to North American readers. The film critic Robert Cauthorn has said that plot is becoming extinct in our culture. Action movies, anything by David Lynch and even, increasingly, our literature, tend to present an escalation of disconnected scenes in lieu of an actual plot in which one scene is logically linked to the next. All this suggests a view of the world that is random: life happens to us and we have no control over it, therefore no responsibility.

Latin American magical realists like Isabel Allende never let us forget that events are caused by other events; in their stories fish may fall from the sky, but they fall for a reason. This outlook is profoundly political, since it incorporates at least the possibility of justice. Something got us into this mess, it says, if only destiny, and something will get us out, if only our own obstinate will.

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This section contains 878 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Barbara Kingsolver
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