Acclaimed Chilean-American author Isabel Allende is known for her sprawling, multigenerational and multinational narratives, and her new novel “In the Midst of Winter” is no exception. Allende’s classic blend of cultures and personalities, best known in South American epic “The House of the Spirits” and California saga “The Japanese Lover,” is at full force in her newest work. But this novel, published in Spanish earlier this year and premeired in English on October 31, adds an unexpected “murder mystery” twist to her familiar style.
Allende’s latest story spans decades and global borders, but it begins closer to home, in present-day Brooklyn during a snowstorm. Richard, an American professor at NYU, and Lucia, his Chilean tenant, shiver through the storm in an old brownstone until Richard ventures out and gets in a car crash. Drama ensues with the other car’s driver, young Guatemalan immigrant Evelyn, and the three characters are thrown together in a wintry adventure that has it all: romance, murder and intrigue.
If it all sounds like a little much, don’t worry — Allende is famous for her melodramatic plots, but she brings such humanity to her characters that you’ll be swept along for the ride. All that melodrama, particularly the murder mystery that quickly takes center stage in the three New Yorkers’ lives, serves as a device to throw these unlikely companions together and drive the plot forward. All the excitement makes for a page-turner, but Allende deftly juggles the novel’s larger-than-life events, capturing their gravity without slipping into schmaltz. This should come as no surprise to her many fans, who are familiar with the measured melodrama of Allende’s novels. In her own life, the author has experienced far-ranging global travel, untimely deaths, political uprisings and exile — who better to write melodrama?
More than anything, it’s the human insight and empathy Allende imbues her characters with that grounds the story. The book’s title comes from a famous Albert Camus quote, cited as an epigraph at the start of the novel: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.” Allende uses the quote as a simple double entendre, evoking both the story’s snowy setting and the inner strength of her characters, who bloom over the course of the narrative.
While she only chose to feature the beginning of the Camus quote in her epigraph, the French philosopher actually continued his winter metaphor, “For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger –– something better, pushing right back.” This invocation of personal resilience certainly applies to Allende’s characters, who are pummeled by tempests far more serious than the winter storm that sets the story into motion. Evelyn, Richard and Lucia tell their life stories to one another during the novel’s long winter nights, and the narrative ricochets between the three characters’ pasts and present. All have faced tragedies that go beyond life’s ordinary challenges, and many of these experiences give a face to global and historical issues, from domestic violence to Chile’s brutal dictatorship, Central American gangs to U.S. migration.
At first glance, some of the narrative seems ripped straight from the headlines, but Allende brings real compassion and humanity to her characters. Rather than reducing Evelyn, in particular, to a powerless victim or “illegal” migrant, as many Central Americans are portrayed in popular depictions, the novelist chooses to highlight her remarkable grit in the face of overwhelming adversity.
While the novel contains considerable violence and suffering, it remains full of joy for life. This celebratory spirit is enhanced, not diminished, by the character’s suffering: a bout with breast cancer results in a newfound appreciation for life’s daily pleasures, and long-term loneliness gives way to a rewarding late-in-life romance.
This joy is often enhanced by faith in something beyond each character’s pain and crises. Allende is unconcerned with the type of faith, preferring to show the diversity and richness of global belief systems, from Afro-Brazilian Candomblé to Chilean Catholicism to indigenous Guatemalan syncretism.
“In the Midst of Winter” shows Allende at the top of her form, applying her brilliant, sensory prose to a whirlwind of destinations in the Americas, from the gray streets of Santiago to a small indigenous village in Guatemala, a New York City snowstorm to bright, boisterous Rio de Janeiro. In the novel’s colorful, interwoven tales, Allende’s most salient message can be found largely between the lines: a condemnation of modern-day isolationism and xenophobia in her adopted home, the United States. Allende expertly weaves these seemingly disparate narratives together, showing our riotous, divided hemisphere for what it really is, a place connected by so much love, blood and history that no one country can ever really isolate itself.