Arts, Books, Review

Generations of Struggle and Triumph Animate Allende’s ‘Violeta’

The words on the page slowly embed the story in your brain. Its meaning moves through your veins, as if passed down from previous generations. But you don’t realize how tightly the story has wound itself around your heart until it’s too late, and you find yourself heartbroken. 

That’s what it feels like to read Isabel Allende’s new novel, Violeta. The acclaimed author’s recent release is seemingly boundless, as it spans 100 years of the life of protagonist Violeta through a multitude of historical events—including pandemics, World War II, and the Cuban Revolution. 

Beginning with financial and familial upheaval, Violeta’s life tells the story of a woman picking up the remains of a broken family and nurturing a newfound one unconstrained by blood relations. 

Throughout the novel, Violeta navigates passionate and dangerous relationships, motherhood, and tragic loss. Allende leaves the reader reeling in the tracks of this fast-paced account of a distinctive life. 

The novel plays with a balance between isolation and freedom in the characters’ homes and families, the political and historical context, and Violeta’s romantic relationships. 

The first chapter, set after Violeta’s birth in 1920 during the Spanish flu outbreak, chronicles scenes of people wearing cloth masks in public and political leaders giving orders to stay at home. History seems to repeat itself, as the words on the page trigger memories of masked grocery store trips and governors’ news broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the first pages, Allende introduces the format of the novel as Violeta’s memoir, which she is writing to a person named Camilo. The author withholds Violeta’s relation to Camilo until the final section of the novel, delivering an emotional blow to a reader who has witnessed the heart-rending path of Violeta’s life. 

At times, the rhythm of the storyline falters when Violeta suddenly addresses Camilo. But, for most of the approximately 300-page book, Violeta’s narrative voice recounts tragic details framed by the wisdom of an old woman reflecting on her life. 

As a 66-year-old woman, Violeta finds herself immersed in an exhilarating new love, as she moves past the pain of her past relationships. Allende’s tale centers around a woman whose life continues to expand and become richer as Violeta ages, contradicting the cultural trope that women should fear aging and the changes that accompany it. 

From a mother’s difficult birth, to a mentor fighting for women’s suffrage, to Violeta’s escape from her abusive partner, a cast of resilient female characters is at the heart of the novel. Female characters fight for survival in every phase of Violeta’s life, while male characters are driven into the ground by their own shame or hubris. 

Beneath the tales of tragedy is a story of hope and new beginnings. In a letter to Camilo, Violeta strives to package up her life story. She tells Camilo of the love that has woven in and out of her life, always seeming to leave a lesson behind. 

Despite the novel’s simple prose, Allende showcases her expert ability to create compelling characters that weave in and out of her life and leave their mark on Violeta. Symmetries appear throughout the novel, as it begins and ends with pandemics, social and political revolutions come and go, and characters’ storylines echo each other.

Allende begins her epic tale with a familiar and fitting epigraph from writer Mary Oliver.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Oliver asks. 

In the final pages of the novel, Violeta tries to answer this question. The old woman recounts her great loves and the people she lost. She suggests to Camilo to embrace the ugliness and beauty of it all—and try not to forget anything. 

“There’s a time to live and a time to die,” Allende writes. “In between there’s time to remember.”

Featured Jacket Design Courtesy of Elena Giavaldi

Featured Jacket Illustration Courtesy of Amanda Arlotta

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor

February 6, 2022