“Violeta” by Isabel Allende

Genre: Historical FictionVioleta
Publisher: Random House – Ballantine
Pub. Date: January 25, 2022

This chronological epic is marketed as historical fiction, but it is a women’s fiction novel punctuated with references to historical events, including the rise of a military takeover. It is set in an unnamed Latin American country that resembles Chile. Violeta is our one-hundred-year-old protagonist, born in the 1920s during the Spanish Flu and now living during the Covid crisis. The novel is structured as a letter in which Violeta outlines her life with such frankness that it is as if we are peeking into the character’s soul. She writes, “In this country there are always calamities, and it’s not hard to connect them to some life event.” Allende is a self-professed “raging feminist.” It is no surprise that her protagonist is a strong woman. “Exert some independence; you’re not a little girl. You can’t let anyone else decide things for you. You have to take care of yourself in this world.” Even A toxic love affair cannot stop Violeta from achieving her goals.

She leaves a short marriage but never divorces since her ex will not sign the papers. Still, she begins a relationship that produces two children with Julian, a debonair but soon abusive pilot. Here the author brings her lens to examine the confusion between passion and domestic violence. Their long love affair is “held together by a perpetual cycle of hate and lust.” Think Pamela Anderson & Tommy Lee. Since Violeta is written as an independent person, I found it incongruent that the author has her tolerating her lover’s behavior. Yet, she is not above having some fun at Julian’s expense. Unknown to the pilot, Violeta befriends his latest girlfriend. She explains to the girl that he will never marry either of them. The young girl sighed while Violeta laughed.

In between all the love affair drama, Violeta chronicles the events leading to a dictatorship in her country. As she recounts the brutality of a fascist coup, we read about “death flights” of political prisoners to torture centers, making a connection to the “worst atrocities of German concentration camps.” We get an up-close look at the horrors women face while living under an oppressive government. The author’s aim seems to be to remind her readers of the perils of returning to a time when women had few rights. Throughout her lifetime, Violeta goes from wealth to poverty, and since she is a savvy businesswoman, back to wealth. She has lived through many historical events, including pandemics, wars, and natural disasters. Ultimately, however, the historical contents seem crudely blended into the story. It feels as if the political events are the backdrop to her life rather than the other way around. I am guessing this was the author’s intention. I would have preferred the novel’s storyline to be more balanced. Still, Allende has a gift for writing and storytelling. I loved her rich prose. Near the end of Violeta’s life, she writes, “The world is paralyzed, and humanity is in quarantine. It is a strange symmetry that I was born in one pandemic and will die during another.” I recommend “Violeta.”

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