An author shares the real drama in her life

Isabel Allende tells her own story of politics, heartache, and the joy to be found in a large and loving family.

Yvonne Zipp

"There is no lack of drama in my life," Chilean author Isabel Allende writes in the opening of her new memoir The Sum of Our Days. As readers of her acclaimed earlier memoir, "Paula," know, this is a little like saying there is no shortage of 9-year-olds at a Hannah Montana concert.

Allende, author of eight novels including "The House of the Spirits," is one of the most famous writers to come out of Latin America. She wrote "Paula" as a love letter to her daughter while the latter was in a coma from which she never recovered.

In it, Allende chronicled her childhood as a diplomat's daughter in a family of strong personalities, her first marriage and career as a journalist, the military coup in 1973 that deposed President Salvador Allende (her father's cousin) and brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet to power, and her flight from Chile and 13-year-exile.

Today, Allende lives with her second husband, Willie Gordon, and an extended "clan" of family and friends in California. That clan is at the heart of her new book, and their personalities, conflicts, and foibles move the memoir forward through 13 years. (Allende writes her mother, who lives in Chile, daily. That correspondence forms the backbone of her memory, and gives "The Sum of Our Days" a level of detail only wished for by the James Freys of the world.)

As in "Paula," Allende is once again writing to her daughter with a loving, newsy tone that envelops a reader as well. "The Sum of Our Days," picks up immediately after the death of Paula.

"I will begin by telling you what has happened since 1993, when you left us, and will limit myself to the family, which is what interests you," Allende writes.

That grief is just one of the challenges Allende and her husband, Willie Gordon, face during a turbulent 1990s. "Many years would go by before you became a gentle, constant friend. In those days, I felt your absence as a sharp pain that at times brought me to my knees."

Allende's stepdaughter succumbs to heroin addiction, putting up a premature daughter for adoption before disappearing completely from the family's life. Considered too old to care for the little girl themselves and unwilling to see her vanish into foster care, Allende and Gordon find two women willing to adopt Sabrina, despite her early shaky prognosis.

Tales of a shameless matchmaker

Later, Allende's daughter-in-law leaves her son for her stepson's fiancée, throwing the family into turmoil. Allende, unwilling to see her son and three grandchildren unhappy, begins matchmaking with a zeal that would have shamed Yenta from "Fiddler on the Roof." Not only do she and her best friend pick out a likely daughter-in-law, they whisk the unsuspecting woman off to the Amazon, to make sure she's of sturdy enough stuff before introducing her to Nicolas.

The most astonishing part of this story: It actually works. This is despite Allende's "pernicious mother-in-law" tendencies, which she laughingly talks about dialing back. (Her husband calls her "a hurricane in a bottle.")

She was in the habit of letting herself into her son's house to kiss her grandchildren good morning – to the consternation of her freshly showered daughter-in-law. And she once rearranged their living room while they were out, in order to showcase the new rug she had bought them.

Allende writes with striking candor and humor about everything from her rigorous writing schedule – she starts every book on Jan. 8, the day she began "The House of the Spirits" and writes 10-12 hours a day – to her plastic surgery.

When Allende comments that the family's many dramas must make them seem "decadent" to outsiders, her husband calmly remarks, "You can't know what happens in other families behind their closed doors. The difference with ours is that everything is out in broad daylight."

But a reader rarely feels squirmy about the family invasion. That may be because Allende's candor doesn't extend to stomping on others' right to privacy. For example, after reading a completed draft, one of her stepsons asked that his story be removed, so Allende rewrote the memoir. (Her mother has flatly forbidden Allende to use her life in a novel.)

Allende does have a regrettable tendency to write about her dreams (even while acknowledging how boring dreams are). And occasionally the profound becomes the profoundly trite, with sentences such as: "Birth and death, Paula, are so similar … sacred and mysterious."

The feel of a real family gathering

"The Sum of Our Days" seems to meander aimlessly, like a conversation between loved ones, but the strength of the characters Allende gathers around her, and the strength of her love for her homemade American family, make this clan gathering one that her fans will be reluctant to leave.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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