I've spent my life, or a large part of it anyway, thinking one day I must read a novel by Isabel Allende. Why didn't I? No idea. Anyway, now I have, and I absolutely loved it. I believe this is her most recent, published last year.
The novel centres on the life of Alma Belasco who, when we first meet her, is 80 years old and has recently moved into a residential care home in San Francisco. I must say it sounds like rather a fun place to be, full of old hippies supplementing or replacing their traditional medicine with all sorts of alternatives, including marihuana. But Alma is fiercely independent, continues with her work as an artist, and doesn't mix with the rest of the residents. She does, however, take a great liking to a young Moldavian care worker, Irina Bazili, who she ends up employing as her personal assistant. As the two become increasingly close, Irina, together with Alma's grandson Seth, who has fallen in love with her, get more and more curious about Alma's past life. They, and the reader, gradually find out her secrets.
Alma was born in Poland, but sent to the US at the beginning of WW2 to live with wealthy relatives in California, where she grew up. The Belascos are kind, cultured people and she is happy there, forming a close friendship with their son Nathaniel. But her best friend is Ichimei, the son of the Japanese gardener. As these two move into their teenage years, the friendship blossoms into an intense love affair, which is shattered when Ichi and his family are rounded up and sent for some years to an internment camp for Japanese. But the feeling between them never dies, and despite each marrying someone else, it seems the love affair must have resumed. This, at least, is the conclusion reached by Irina and Seth, based on the letters Alma receives each week, the gardenias that arrive in the mail, and her frequent but unexplained absences from time to time. It's only after Alma's death that the full truth of it all finally emerges.
There's so much to admire abut this novel. I was particularly impressed by the way it is structured - Alma's story, as well as that of Irina, of Ichi, and of some minor characters too, emerge bit by bit over the course of the narrative, with a final big reveal right at the end. Allende does a fantastic job of telling you just enough to satisfy you for the moment, while leaving you curious to discover the next link in the puzzle. I learned lot too from the very upsetting sections dealing with the internment of Japanese families following Pearl Harbour. Many of these people were US citizens, others had been running successful businesses and living blameless lives, but they were rounded up, forced to sell or give away all their possessions, and interned in horrendous conditions in concentration camps for a number of years. I had a vague knowledge of this, but Allende really makes it vivid: the despair of the father, the bravery of the mother, the children trying to live normal lives. It's a dark page in American history and one we can only pray will not be repeated.
Most of all, though, this is a novel of great humanity. There's just so much love here. Primarily between Ichi and Alma, of course, their great lifetime passion presented so delicately, but also the gradual way that Irina, whose back story we don't learn for some time, slowly manages to grow in love and trust for her employer and for the man who patiently loves and waits for her. Alma's relationship with her husband is beautifully presented too - no passion here, but a solid friendship with much love and respect - Nathaniel too has a secret, only revealed to his wife after decades of marriage.
So this is obviously a writer at the very top of her game, and I can't wait to read more of her. Anyone out there a fan? I'd love to have a recommendation for what to read next.