Maggie Shipstead in the New Republic has a long (and accurate) negative review of the new Isabel Allende novel. Unfortunately, Allende’s work just isn’t that good. I say unfortunately because as the most famous Latin American woman writer and given the propensity of critics to treat women authors differently, in other words call a novel by a woman women’s writing, her work is a disservice to the books that are really worth reading.
It has to be said that the fact that Allende’s books are translated from Spanish introduces an element of critical uncertainty. In 1987, reviewing her second novel, Of Love and Shadows, John Updike wrote that “perhaps the translator should share the blame” for the primness of the prose. At this point, 17 books in, I think the time is past for blaming the translator. Take this sentence from Maya’s Notebook: “‘So the fucking slut wants to go back to California!’ he mocked threateningly.” Its bland aggression and adverbial clunkiness would be cringe-worthy in any language. And no translator could have snuck in the cheesiness of Maya’s description of her mixed-race lover’s body: “He looks like Michelangelo’s David, but his coloring is much more attractive.” Or the exposition of the obvious that takes over the dialogue as the plot devolves into a goofy caper: “‘Good thinking, Mike,’ interjected my Nini, whose eyes were starting to twinkle as well. ‘To fly, Maya would need a ticket in her name and some form of ID—that leaves a trail—but we can cross the country by car without anybody finding out.’” Allende has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and speaks English fluently. She reads her English translations and offers notes on them. It might be time to accept that this style, with all its limitations, is her style.
A certain overstuffedness, of course, is one attribute of magical realism, an aesthetic that Gabriel García Marquez popularized and Allende embraced.2 Maya’s Notebook, as I read it, is a realist novel with a few fantastical flourishes that seem less about speaking to life’s absurdities and more about indulging in sentimentality. For example, a dog senses a woman is dead in her house and begins howling, which sets off all the other dogs, and the mass howling brings the neighbors running—to the correct house. There is also a ghost who pops up here and there and is treated with a certain earnestness, but there are no grand, obviously magical gestures. No one has the power of telekinesis or naturally green hair, as in The House of the Spirits; and no one ascends to heaven while hanging up the laundry, as in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. A magical realist novel about contemporary Las Vegas that incorporates the fantastic, the dreamlike, and the mythical sounds like a intriguing idea, but this is not that novel.