I've spent decades looking forward to reading Isabel Allende and somehow never getting around to it, so I was really pleased when this one was chosen for my relatively new but highly enjoyable book group. Almost everybody loved it, which was good, and we had an interesting discussion.
Set in an un-named South American country - one reader was annoyed that it wasn't specified but the rest of us thought that worked well - this is a classic example of a bildungsroman, as the story begins with Eva's conception and takes us through her extremely varied life up to her coming of age as a mature woman.
The illegitimate daughter of a maid, Eva lives a wild, free existence until, when she is six, her mother dies. She's taken into a convent to be brought up with other orphans until she's old enough to go into domestic service. Her life is hard, but she eases the dissatisfaction by making use of a gift she finds she has been blessed with - the ability to tell stories. This sees her though many vicissitudes including a period living in a brothel, being fostered by a kind-hearted Turkish shopkeeper and his terminally depressed wife, living rough on the city streets and being befriended by an older street urchin, Huberto Naranjo, who later becomes a shady businessman and then a guerrilla fighter. She makes friends with a beautiful transexual who takes her in and helps her become a professional writer, and she plays a part in the revolution which will overturn the country's oppressive dictator.
Eva Luna is a wonderfully full, rich novel. I loved its amazingly evocative depictions of the varied South American world, from jungle to small town to city - it's a place I've always longed to visit but have always thought it would be rather overwhelming. The secondary characters are wonderfully vivid, and include Rolf Carle, an Austrian boy who ends up in South America, living with relatives - he eventually becomes a successful film maker and will play an important part in Eva's later life, having emerged from a hilariously erotic menage a trois with his two cousins. There's plenty of gritty reality here, but Allende is celebrated partly for her use of magic realism, and there are some moments of magic here too.
One of our group (male) characterised it as a feminist novel, which, though I dislike labels, I suppose it is. Certainly it's about a woman who starts life about as powerless as it's possible to be and ends up happy and successful after a lot of very challenging ups and downs. But to put it in a box is to minimise Allende's achievement, which is to tell the story of a small life in a brilliantly grand and impressive way - there's wit, excitement, intelligence, magic - what more could you want.
Any recommendations for my next Allende novel?