Review of 'Violeta' - Isabel Allende
Brief Summary: I've never read any of Allende's books before, so had no idea what to expect in terms of style and was initially drawn to the book partly because of the prettiness of the cover. However, the content is just as beautiful and I will be looking at her back catalogue to read more of her work.
One extraordinary woman. One hundred years of history. One unforgettable story.
Violeta comes into the world on a stormy day in 1920, the first daughter in a family of five boisterous sons. From the start, her life is marked by extraordinary events, for the ripples of the Great War are still being felt, even as the Spanish flu arrives on the shores of her South American homeland almost at the moment of her birth.
Through her father's prescience, the family will come through that crisis unscathed, only to face a new one as the Great Depression transforms the genteel city life she has known. Her family loses all and is forced to retreat to a wild and beautiful but remote part of the country. There, she will come of age, and her first suitor will come calling.
In a letter to someone she loves above all others, Violeta recounts devastating heartbreak and passionate affairs, times of both poverty and wealth, terrible loss and immense joy, and a life shaped by some of the most important events of history: the fight for women's rights, the rise and fall of tyrants and, ultimately, not one but two pandemics. Through the eyes of a woman whose unforgettable passion, determination, and sense of humour will carry her through a lifetime of upheaval, Isabel Allende once more brings us an epic that is both fiercely inspiring and deeply emotional.
The book opens in 1920, but has a tremendously contemporary feel, with the father coming in from work and washing his hands in alcohol before seeing his family. Indeed, Violeta herself comments towards the end of the book about her life beginning and ending in a pandemic and this circularity is partly what makes it such a satisfying read.
It's interesting to see how the life lessons change Violeta herself, while allowing her to stay fundamentally true to her own nature. She becomes much more worldly wise in her old age, but it is her naivety which makes her such an appealing character and allows the reader to forgive her mistakes and missteps. Indeed, it was easy to empathise with her when she wrote about not understanding the greater political ramifications of certain events. One of the things politicans of all persuasions excel at is making the unpalatable sound not only reasonable, but often attractive, especially when compared with their version of 'the alternative'.
In literature, we often only meet a character as an adult, when their personality etc is fully formed and although they may change throughout the course of the plot, it's often as a direct result of a particular event, in the manner of an Ebenezer Scrooge. However, with Violeta, we witness the events of her childhood which mould her character and this allows the reader a greater insight into her mindset as she develops physically and mentally. Although she does change in reaction to particular events, there is much more of a feeling of steady progression in her maturity which although less dramatic, feels far more realistic than can sometimes be the case.
The plot does cover some incredibly dark themes, but it does so in a way that meant I never felt weighed down by them. Violeta's commentary on these themes and events was such that I never completely lost sight of the light and I think this is another thing that added to the utter realism of the book. People often find humour and hope in the darkest of times and Violeta's way of dealing with things always felt very in keeping with her character. I loved the fact that in a time when women were second class citizens, she refused to accept that and found ways to work around it in order to get the life she wanted.
Her asides to Camilo - the recipient of the letter she is writing - serve to draw the reader into the personal nature of the revelations, without a fracturing of the fourth wall and this works incredibly well because it serves to include the reader (it feels at times as though these asides are addressed to you personally) without pulling them out of the fictional world completely.
As I noted earlier, the book has some dark events and covers a hugely difficult time both politically and personally, but overall, Violeta is a gentle read. It's nicely paced and the balance is perfect throughout - never too tense, but always gripping enough to keep me reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will be heading to the library to find more of her books.
Thank you to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for an ARC of this book and the opportunity to read and review it.