Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Wendy DuBow

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 716 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Wendy DuBow

Critical Review by Wendy DuBow

SOURCE: A review of Paula, in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 6, November-December, 1995, p. 10.

In the review below, DuBow states that while Paula is not really about Allende's daughter, the work nevertheless expresses true grief over her death.

Isabel Allende's autobiographical Paula is a heartrending account of her 28-year-old daughter's losing battle with porphyria, a rare blood disease (brought to our attention recently by the film The Madness of King George). Paula takes the reader on a journey of love, terror, political turmoil, sadness, endurance, and magic.

An internationally known author of mesmerizing novels and short stories, Allende began writing Paula in an attempt to find relief from the pain of watching her only daughter lie comatose for 12 months. As morbid and unrelenting as the experience must have been for her, Allende offers readers the same relief she found herself, recounting her life's story.

In a deft melding of life and death, Allende has written her autobiography, largely a celebration of life's excitement and tumult, while narrating in searing detail her family's responses to Paula's illness and early death. Allende's talent as a novelist enables her to pull off a masterfully dynamic interweaving of two stories: her own development and Paula's virtual stasis.

The vividness of Allende's descriptions inserts the reader directly into her life. When she describes the 1973 military coup in Chile that unseated President Salvador Allende, her uncle, we understand what it means to have democracy suddenly eradicated. In hearing about the 17 years of dictatorship that followed, we can empathize with the difficulties of living in exile. Later, we feel what it would be like to share a life-affirming love with a partner, as Allende describes her relationship with her second husband, Willie, a California attorney.

At the time Allende met Willie, her daughter also met her husband, Ernesto, and her son fell in love with Celia, now his wife. These coincidences would seem artificial in a novel, yet they have happened repeatedly in Allende's life. In a recent interview (American Way, July 15, 1993), she said, "Crazy, improbable occurrences have always played an important role in my life … In Latin America, we accept coincidence and mystical events as a part of life." This acceptance helps to make her worldview both intriguing and comforting. Even when horrible events occur, she imbues them with her sensual imagination and her belief in a coexisting nether region, so that the world never seems as desolate as it undoubtedly would in another author's hands.

Still she doesn't try to mask the horror of tragedies. She says, for instance.

My life is one of contrasts. I have learned to see both sides of the coin. At moments of great success, I do not lose sight of the pain awaiting me down the road, and when I'm sunk in despair, I wait for the sun I know will rise farther along.

Paula's death and the Chilean military takeover stand out in their awful enormity. But rather than feeling weighed down by the vicarious experience of pain, I finished the book feeling extrasensitive to life's wonders and deeply appreciative of having shared the vision of someone as resilient and caring as Isabel Allende. She writes:

During these long months I have been peeling away like an onion, layer after layer, changing … I am not the same woman, my daughter has given me the opportunity to look inside myself and discover interior spaces—empty, dark, strangely peaceful—I had never explored before.

Allende emphasizes that she has been forever changed, and no doubt she has, but the hallmark aspects of her character—her loving approach to life, her appreciation of the crazy and inexplicable, and her resilience—all remain firmly in place from beginning to end.

As a character, Paula is essentially dead for the reader from the start. I couldn't empathize with her family's love for her, or that of her various caretakers. The few times Paula's personality comes alive are when Allende alludes to her former idiosyncrasies. But these hints simply stirred my curiosity about the complicated, live Paula.

Despite the book's title, Paula isn't at the heart of the story. The pathos at the end of the book derives not from her death but from Allende's grief, for she is the true subject, and it is Allende herself whom we finally admire.

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This section contains 716 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Wendy DuBow
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