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Isabel Allende's latest follows a complex web of relationships

| Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, 8:18 a.m.
Isabel Allende
Lori Barra
Isabel Allende
'In the Midst of Winter' by Isabel Allende
'In the Midst of Winter' by Isabel Allende

It's ostensibly a minor plot element in Isabel Allende's new novel, “In the Midst of Winter” (Atria). But the idea of a character getting to know her mother and daughter through letters mirrors a very important part of Allende's life.

For decades, Allende has written to her mother every day, and her mother has responded in kind.

“When we were younger, it was snail mail, then we started using faxes, and now its email,” says Allende, who appears Nov. 13 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Ten Evenings series. “I save my mother's letters and I save a copy of mine. Every year at the end of the year, I put all the letters in a box and mark the year. I have a storage room full of these boxes for decades, and each box contains between 600 and 800 letters. You can imagine what that means: It's our whole lives that are there.”

Allende has long chronicled her life, directly and indirectly, through words. Starting with 1982's “House of the Spirits,” she's published 23 books that have been translated into 35 languages, with global sales of 67 million units.

Like all of her other books, Allende started writing “In the Midst of Winter” on Jan. 8 (in this case, 2016). This practice dates back to Jan. 8, 1981, when she was living in exile in Venezuela from her native Chile, where her grandfather was dying.

“I started a letter to him to bid him farewell,” Allende says. “And that letter became 'The House of the Spirits,' my first novel. It was very successful and paved the way for all the books I have written. It made me a writer, it changed my life. So it was a very lucky book, and I thought, to count on that for luck I'll start the second book on the same date. And then the third. Now if I change (the date), the book will be a flop, for sure.”

“In the Midst of Winter” seems to be a romance at first blush, but after the introduction of the main characters — Lucia Maraz, a writer and guest lecturer at New York University, and Richard Bowmaster, her boss at NYU and her landlord — the story spirals in various directions.

When Richard crashes into the car of Evelyn Ortega on a snowy night in Brooklyn, the novel takes on elements of mystery and adventure novels. When Evelyn is revealed as an undocumented worker from Guatemala who has been working as a nanny for a family with a disabled boy, the story becomes more intricate, but not political, she insists.

“My intention is to never give a message,” Allende says. “I just want to tell a story, and if the story is basically true, even if it's fiction, if the elements of the story are true, I believe that can really touch some readers.”

While each of the characters has a traumatic background — Lucia left Chile during the military coup of 1972, Richard ruined his family life through drinking — it's Evelyn's story that is most horrific. While growing up in Guatemala she was raped by members of MS-13 after an older brother betrayed members of the notorious gang.

Allende has heard too many stories similar to Evelyn's horrifying tale. Through the Isabel Allende Foundation — which she started after the death of her daughter, Paula Frias, who volunteered in poor communities in Spain and Venezuela — Allende provides legal help to unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children.

“People need to see that these are not numbers,” she says. “These are human beings. Each one has a story, each one has a name. In my foundation, I get to see them. I wanted to tell that story of a person like Evelyn, and give the reader a chance to see the person, and not the numbers.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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