Isabel Allende’s history with Seattle began with a dress. It looked like a butterfly, she lovingly remembered, and she flew all the way back to the city to try it on. “And I looked terrible. I looked like an extra in the Cirque du Soleil,” she laughed. She brought that sense of humor back to Seattle for a conversation with Bill Radke following the publication of her latest book, "In the Midst of Winter."
This book is her 23rd, spanning a 50-year history. But after all that hard work: “I’m 75 years old,” she said. “I want to relax and have fun, for God’s sake.”
Most recently, some of that fun began after another public radio interview. "In the Midst of Winter" depicts a late-life love affair between two academics in their 60s. In a case of life imitating art, Allende was contacted by a man who had heard her on the radio – and disagreed with what she had to say. They began corresponding.
He wrote to her every morning and every evening for five months. When they finally met, she asked him what his intentions were over lunch.
"If somebody had asked me that, I would have run away," she said incredulously. Her new beau choked on his ravioli but recovered admirably and is now in the process of selling his home and moving cross-country to be with her.
When he first reached out, she said, she was in a deep emotional winter. She had divorced her husband of 28 years; her beloved editor, three best friends, and even her dog had recently died.
"But no winter lasts forever. The summer is always waiting beneath the surface."
That proves true for the three characters in the novel: Chilean writer and researcher Lucia, NYU professor Richard, and Guatemalan refugee Evelyn. Each is carrying their own trauma. And through their interactions with each other, each of them begins to heal.
Allende begins all of her books in the literal winter: January 8, to be precise. But she often doesn’t know what she’s really writing about until after she’s finished and the book goes out into the world.
“Often, I think I’m writing about something. But then the book taps into something else, or a reader points something out, and I realize it’s about something that’s been important to me all my life.”
"Island Beneath the Sea," for example, is a novel about the Haitian slave revolt. She was obsessed with the story and could not understand why: There was no slavery in Chile, no uprising. She later realized that the book was about absolute power with impunity. Salvador Allende, her distant relative, was murdered in the coup that would bring the Pinochet regime to power for 17 years. That collapse of accountability is one that figures strongly in her memories, both political and personal.
Allende spoke of the machismo that marked her childhood and that looms large in each of the three main characters’ lives. Nowhere is it more pronounced than for Evelyn, who is a victim of sexual trauma before leaving her home to rejoin her mother in the north.
Radke noted that when we talk about refugees, we rarely talk about sexual violence. “It’s because we take it for granted,” Allende said, adding that the real surprise in Evelyn’s story would have been if she hadn’t been assaulted.
But the book does not end on a note of triumph over the oppressed. As in many of her novels, there is a certain poetic justice to the story’s resolution.
“Justice sometimes has to bypass the judicial system, bypasses what is legal, and focus on what is human. I don’t trust the system anymore,” she said. “In 24 hours, I saw a legal system demolished. So I don’t trust the law much. But I trust the human heart. If we have a chance to hear another’s story, look them in the eye, we can connect.”