Allende, Isabel: 1942—: Novelist

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Isabel Allende: 1942: Novelist

One of the most popular and widely acclaimed writers in the Western Hemisphere, the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende has been hailed as the creator of a distinctively female voice within the largely male-dominated Latin American literary tradition. In a series of bestselling novels written in the last decades of the twentieth century, Allende mixed elements of Latin American "magical realism" with strands drawn from the social upheavals that had occurred through Latin America's turbulent historysome of which she had personally experienced. A popular touch, perhaps shaped by the romance novels Allende edited as a young journalist in Chile, propelled her work to wide popularity in the United States after the release of her stunning 1982 debut, The House of the Spirits, in English translation.

The daughter of a Chilean diplomat, Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru, on August 2, 1942. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she was raised in the Chilean capital of Santiago. Well-educated in private schools, Allende traveled the world with her mother and her new stepfather, another member of Chile's diplomatic corps. As a young woman Allende worked for a United Nations office in Santiago as a secretary; she married an engineer, Miguel Frias, when she was 20.

Worked as Advice Columnist

Gradually Allende began to gravitate toward a writing career. She held a variety of positions with magazines and publishing houses in Santiago between 1967 and 1974, one of them as an advice columnist with a magazine called Paula, and also worked as a television interview host and as a movie newsreel editor. Allende's life was turned upside down, however, by national events; Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was her uncle and godfather, was overthrown and assassinated in a 1973 coup backed by the United States, which objected to the Allende government's socialist reforms. After the coup, Allende said in a Publishers Weekly interview quoted in Contemporary Authors, "I realized that everything was possiblethat violence was a dimension that was always around you."

Allende and her family fled Chile for Venezuela, where she wrote for the newspaper El Nacional. But less work came her way than in her native country, and she found herself with a lot of time on her hands for thought. She used it to take stock of her own life and of the history of her own culture. One of the fruits of her reflections was a long and ultimately unmailed letter she wrote to her ailing grandfather in Chile, surveying the long and complicated history of her own family. That letter, fictionalized and heavily elaborated, grew into Allende's first novel, The House of the Spirits (La casa de los espíritus).

At a Glance . . .

Born August 2, 1942, in Lima, Peru; raised in Chile; daughter of Tomàs Allende, a Chilean diplomat, and Francisca Llona Barros Allende; married Miguel Frias, an engineer, 1962 (divorced, 1987); married William Gordon, a lawyer, 1988; children: Paula (deceased), Nicolas. Education: Graduated from a private high school in Santiago, Chile.

Career: Secretary, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, Santiago, Chile, 1959-65; worked as journalist and advice columnist, Paula and Mampato magazines, Santiago, 1967-74; television interviewer, Santiago, 1970-75; writer for movie newsreels, 1973-75; journalist, El Nacional, Caracas, Venezuela, 1975-84; published debut novel, The House of the Spirits, 1982 (English trans. 1985); guest lecturer and writing instructor at various U.S. institutions, 1980s and 1990s.

Addresses: Agent Carmen Balcells, Diagonal 580, Barcelona 21, Spain.

Like Colombian author Gabriel García Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, to which it has often been compared, The House of the Spirits is a complex family saga that spans several generations. Its main characters are a traditional patriarch, Esteban Trueba, who becomes estranged from his wife, Clara, and later from his activist daughter, Alba. The book includes so-called magical realist devicessupernatural or unexplainable events, such as salt and pepper shakers that move around a dining room table of their own accord. As the novel moves toward the present, though, South America's recent political history comes to the fore and the storytelling becomes more conventionally realistic. Alba, who is revealed as the story's narrator, is seized by the military after a right-wing coup.

Based Novel on Pinochet Dictatorship

Although The House of the Spirits took place in an unnamed country, Allende's second novel, Of Love and Shadows (De amor y de sombra, ) was specifically situated in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. It tells the story of two journalists who are forced into exile after investigating a military-sponsored murder of a young woman who has seemingly miraculous powers that have allowed her to defy their commands. Drawn on actual events, the novel combined magical realism with scenes of Latin American life in much the same way as The House of the Spirits, but seemed more closely identified with Allende's own career.

The House of the Spirits was translated into English in 1985 (it was made into a film in 1994), and began to gain wide attention in the United States; translated into other languages as well, it became a best seller in several European countries. Allende won several new-author awards and was brought to the United States for a promotional tour as Of Love and Shadows was released. After giving a reading in San Jose, California, Allende met a U.S. lawyer, William Gordon; the two later married, and Allende continues to make her home in northern California.

Allende remained steadily productive through the 1990s, experimenting with new forms and settings and consistently holding the interests of critics who, even if they did not give Allende universal acclaim, kept her in the literary limelight. Allende's novel Eva Luna and its successor volume of short fiction The Stories of Eva Luna (Los cuentos de Eva Luna ) feature a South American writer who becomes involved with an Austrian immigrant who is the son of a former Nazi (many Nazis fled to South America after World War II). Her 1993 novel The Infinite Plan (El plan infinito ), however, was set in her adopted country, with a male, Anglo-American central figure who grows up in a poor, mainly Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles. Paula (1995) was a nonfiction work about the death of Allende's daughter, and in 1997 Allende published Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (Afrodite: Recetas, cuentos y otros afrodisiacos ), an unusual mixture of autobiography, essays, and cookbook.

Novels Link United States and Latin America

Returning to the epic sweep of her debut in the late 1990s, however, seemed to bring Allende back to the roots of her creative impulses. Her novels Daughter of Fortune (Hija de la fortuna, 1999) and Portrait in Sepia (Retrato in sepia, 2001) featured characters who had appeared or been mentioned in The House of the Spirits, once again structuring her stories to encompass the experiences of several generations, and this time capturing the cultural interchange that has linked the western United States with Latin American countries. Publishers Weekly noted that "Allende expands her geographical boundaries in this sprawling, engrossing historical novel flavored by four culturesEnglish, Chilean, Chinese and Americanand set during the 1849 California Gold Rush."

Daughter of Fortune landed on best-seller lists and brought Allende an important marker of popular U.S. acceptance and a virtual guarantee of substantial future salesit was named as a pick title by the nationwide book club headed by talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. Allende became the first Hispanic author Winfrey had selected. Continuing to create new examples in her series of strong female characters, Isabel Allende remains in the process of redefining, for the general U.S. reading public as well as for Spanish-language readers, the image of Latin American fiction.

Selected writings

The House of the Spirits, 1982 (English trans. 1985).

Of Love and Shadows, 1984 (English trans. 1987).

Eva Luna, 1988.

Stories of Eva Luna, 1990 (English trans. 1991).

The Infinite Plan, 1993.

Paula, 1995 (nonfiction).

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, 1997 (English trans. 1998).

Daughter of Fortune, 1999.

Portrait in Sepia, 2001.



Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Feminist Writers, St. James, 1996.


People, April 20, 1998, p 47.

Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1999, p. 41; February 21, 2000, p. 20; July 16, 2001, p. 164.


Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group. 2001. (

James M. Manheim

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Allende, Isabel: 1942—: Novelist

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