“Allende can spin a yarn with the grace of a poet.”
“Gripping… Allende retains the storytelling magic that is her signature.”
—O: The Oprah Magazine
“An explosive novel…Every character is enthralling…This is a boldly plotted, sharply funny, and purposefully bone-shaking novel of sexual violence, political terror, “collective shame,” and dark family secrets, all transcended by courage and love.”
—Booklist (starred review)
From the start, Isabel Allende’s new novel feels like a break from the past, a deliberate distancing from the deep historical context and magical realism that have marked her work and charmed her readers across generations and national borders. Maya’s Notebook is a gritty, violent, cautionary tale set firmly in the present, with a tough- talking teen in the lead role and enough bad guys to fill an Elmore Leonard book.
But even with its relentlessly modern viewpoint, which might disorient some longtime Allende fans, the book offers enough familiar markers to reassure the internationally lauded author’s most faithful followers while also winning her some new converts. The writing is still all Allende: driven by emotion, informed by her own multi-cultural life, framed by her brand of lyrical description. And there’s historical context, too, although it’s less central and more personal than in some of her previous books.
Narrated by troubled 19-year-old Maya, the novel traces the young woman’s descent from an offbeat childhood in a rambling house in Berkeley with her grandparents to a nightmarish life on the Las Vegas streets mixed up with thugs, drugs, prostitution and assassins. The painful and degrading fall is set off by the death of her beloved grandfather — and a reminder of how easy the young and vulnerable can slip over the edge.
Eventually, her grandmother comes to the rescue, a Chilean émigré with a mystical bent who packs Maya off to live with an old friend on a remote island off the coast of Chile. That’s when Maya begins to grow up, figure out what ails her and tackle some of the central mysteries of her life.
—Amy Driscoll, The Miami Herald
“10 New Must-Reads For April”
“Isabel Allende enchants in MAYA’S NOTEBOOK.”
The bleached hair, nose ring and shoulder tattoo on the young woman on the cover of Maya’s Notebook are sure signs we’re not in the historical-novel territory of Isabel Allende’s “Daugher of Fortune” or “Inés of My Soul.”
But the thoroughly contemporary heroine of Allende’s latest is every bit as fierce, fragile and fascinating as the corset-wearing women the author has conjured up so well.
The journal narrated by Maya Vidal, 19, chronicles the year she is in hiding from a world of trouble nearly at the end of the world: the storm-tossed island of Chiloé, “a village of wooden houses on stilts” off the coast of Chile. “Notebook” is divided into four chapters representing the seasons, but with a Southern-Hemisphere twist: Summer is January, February and March. Winter is June, July and August.
Maya’s sanctuary in Chiloé is the home of an old friend of her Chilean grandmother, reserved but generous Manuel Arias, who harbors secrets about the atrocities committed by Chile’s dictatorship during its war against leftists. Through Maya’s observations, Allende lovingly introduces the island’s culture and customs, and its welcoming residents, who speak “Spanish at a gallop” and sprinkle their speech with diminutives, calling Maya “gringuita,” or little gringa.
“Notebook” ebbs and flows from the present to the past. Maya recalls her happy childhood in Berkeley, Calif., under the care of her doting grandparents: Popo, a gentle giant and cultured astronomer; and fiery Nini, social activist and crime-fiction fan. (The novel’s one misstep is a mystery twist that falls flat.)
The death of her beloved Popo when Maya is 16 sends her into a tailspin: “I started testing danger with the determination of someone hypnotized.” Rebellion leads to a harrowing descent into addiction and a life of crime in Las Vegas.
Allende writes chillingly of the ugly underbelly just below the glitzy veneer of Sin City. Freshly arrived in the drug den that becomes her home there, lorded over by a Fagin- esque junkie, Maya speaks with disdain of other users, not yet having hit her rock bottom: “I lost count of how many of those zombies there were around us, snotty skeletons with ulcers, agitated, trembling, sweaty, imprisoned in their hallucinations, sleepwalkers pursued by voices and bugs that crawled into their orifices.”
Blessedly, Maya gets a shot at healing and redemption, and a chance to share her journey in her old-soul way.
“As my Popo used to say, life is a tapestry we weave day by day with threads of different colors, some heavy and dark, others thin and bright, all the threads having their uses. The stupid things I did are already in the tapestry, indelible, but I’m not going to be weighed down by them till I die …”
Longtime fans of Isabel Allende’s work will find much of the author’s beguiling mix of cleareyed toughness and lightness of spirit in her new protagonist, and will welcome another chapter in Allende’s continuing exploration of Latin America. Those introduced to Allende by “Maya’s Notebook” surely will want more.
—Agnes Torres Al-Shibibi, Seattle Times
“Allende paints a vivid picture contrasting Maya’s drug-clouded past and her recovery in Chiloé. Yet another accomplished work by a master storyteller that will enthrall and captivate. This is a must-read.”
—Library Journal (starred review)
“Allende is a master at plucking heartstrings, and Maya’s family drama is hard to resist.”
A wayward American teenager regains her health and soul on a remote Chilean island. In all of her work, Isabel Allende has explored the ways in which people survive, even thrive, after trauma. Into the dark corners of history and the human psyche she boldly goes, shining a strong light on evil, sorrow and secrets. And yet, it is not darkness that is her focus, but rather the things that dim and disperse it — kindness, forgiveness, empathy. Allende is a disciple of love. In her world, love wears down dictators, heals the sick, surprises the hopeless, renders life magical.
That theme — our capacity to inflict great evil but also to love and heal — is again dominant in Maya’s Notebook. Maya is a teenager who has been deserted by her birthparents and raised in Berkeley, Calif., by her grandparents — tall, gentle astronomer Popo, formerly of Canada, and diminutive, fierce Nini, formerly of Chile. When Popo dies of cancer, grief drives Maya to dangerous distraction. In the space of a year or two, she becomes an alcoholic, a drug addict, a prostitute and a rape victim, living in near-slavery in Las Vegas, entrapped by a drug dealer who one moment treats her tenderly, the next with profanity-punctuated threats. Her ordeals are eloquently and graphically portrayed.
Thanks to the intervention of kind strangers and the tenacity that hibernates beneath Maya’s brutalization and addictions, she is rescued and rehabbed, but has to be hidden to protect her from murderous thugs. Her grandmother sends her to the remotest place she can think of, the tiny island of Chiloe, off the coast of her native Chile. There, Maya is given shelter by a friend of her grandmother’s, the taciturn scholar Manuel. Slowly and shakily, she heals on this strange, sunny island. The self-described “absurd gringa” begins to keep a notebook chronicling her days and the island’s culture and inhabitants, many of whom, like her, harbor sad secrets. As her strength returns, she regains the capacity to wonder and care about others, and still further on, to risk love. Manuel’s sparse advice to her captures the book’s theme: “Fear gets in through the same aperture as love. What I’m trying to tell you is that if you’re able to love very much, you’re also going to suffer a lot.”
Eventually, danger finds its way to the island, and drama ensues. But finally, courage, hope and love are left standing.
Allende writes with raw eloquence about the most horrific things — torture, child rape, incest, drug abuse, murder — yet still creates a book that is largely sunny of aspect. Much of that is due to her ability to transport the reader to an exotic world, to describe in tender, sometimes mischievous detail its people, animals, plants, weather. Her prose warms you like fine red wine.
It may be a flaw that Maya’s narrative voice more often resembles that of a wise old woman than a damaged teenager. Or, one can believe, as Allende clearly wants us to, that suffering can fastforward people to special wisdom.
Maya’s story is soul-restoring in its fierce conviction that there is no damage done to a society, family or individual that cannot be eclipsed by hope and love. Allende makes you believe that, even if you don’t, at least for a while.
—Pamela Miller, Star Tribune
Internationally revered for her truth-seeking historical fiction, Allende takes on the present with equal bewitchment and intensity. As Maya’s grandmother, Nidia, sends her into protective custody on Chiloé, an island off Chile’s southern coast, she hands her a notebook in which this imperiled and irascible 19-yearold records her wrenching story. Fair and tall, Maya does not resemble her Chilean side, neither her
absentee pilot father nor tough-love Berkeley activist Nidia, but, rather, her Danish flight-attendant mother, who left her newborn with her in-laws. To further complicate matters, Maya’s guiding light was her grandfather, Nidia’s second husband, a wise and loving African American astronomer. It is his death that precipitates the “voyage to the underworld” of addiction, crime, and homelessness that nearly kills her. Maya alternates between recounting her past and reporting on her gradual acclimation to Chiloé, a microcosm of Chile’s cultural and spiritual splendor and traumatic and tragic history. Every character is enthralling, including Manuel, the all-but-monastic anthropologist and political exile who takes Maya in; Freddy, the young junkie Maya meets in Las Vegas; and the “good witches,” who restore her sense of worth. This is a boldly plotted, sharply funny, and purposefully bone-shaking novel of sexual violence, political terror, “collective shame,” and dark family secrets, all transcended by courage and love.
—Donna Seaman, Booklist