Mistress of the Castle

Reviewed by Carolyn See
Sunday, April 13, 2008


By Isabel Allende

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

Harper. 301 pp. $26.95

Thirteen years ago, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende published a memoir, Paula, in the form of a letter to a daughter who lay in a coma. The Sum of Our Days is a sequel, also addressed to Paula, that explains what has happened to the family since her death from porphyria, a rare blood disorder, in 1992. The author, I believe, attempts three things: She defends her use of magical realism as an emotional device, demonstrating how it operates in her everyday life as well as in her novels -- which is fascinating. She explains to her deceased daughter how she has endeavored to merge her family, her second husband's previous wives and children, and various friends and acquaintances into one big "tribe" -- which is puzzling. And she tries, all too plainly, to discredit and diminish her second husband's children -- which is disturbing.

Right off the bat, Allende tells the dead Paula that the family chronicle will have to omit "Lindsay, whom I barely know . . . and Scott, because he doesn't want to appear in these pages." These are the sons of her second husband, Willie, and we'll find out more about them later. But, first, we hear the story of poor Jennifer, Willie's daughter, who uses heroin, becomes pregnant, gives birth to a physically challenged daughter, then wanders off. Sabrina, the damaged child, is rescued heroically by Allende, who arranges to have her adopted by a lesbian Buddhist couple -- two more members of her tribe, which includes Willie's accountant and a woman she befriended at a book store.

As for the sons, we eventually learn that Scott waited until he saw the first draft of the book before saying he wanted out, forcing Allende to rewrite it. Willie, she says, "has had so many problems with his children that had I been in his place I would have been incurably depressed."

Allende builds her "tribe" with determination. She annexes the lives of those nearest her, telling their stories with alarming intimacy. She begins with her son Nico, whose first wife, a homophobic follower of the Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, had three children in five years, then ran off with another woman. She describes her grandchildren in scorching terms: "Of the three children, Andrea was without doubt the most peculiar. My granddaughter came dressed like a beggar, with pink rags tied around different parts of her body, a straw hat with faded flowers, and her Save-the-Tuna doll."

At one point, Allende decides that Nico is such a bumbler he can't find a new wife, so she finds one for him. Once the new woman is ensconced in his house, Allende barges in when they're not there, throws out the new wife's china and rearranges the furniture. On top of that, she insists on seeing wife No. 1 and her lesbian partner, although Nico begs her not to. Then Allende picks a mail-order bride for her husband's Chinese accountant.

In sum, Allende seems to have no concept of what might be called boundaries in our culture. She wants to live in what she believes is the Chilean fashion, everyone together in one big family with herself at the center. There's an implicit trade-off in this tribe. Members get to be part of something large and sometimes meaningful and sometimes fun, but in return they cede their lives, their stories and their privacy to Allende. Perhaps some of the explanation is financial: Speaking of Jason, who, if I read correctly -- it's all rather hard to follow -- is Willie's stepson, whose fiancée got stolen by the Opus Dei woman, Allende remarks: "Now he is the only one of our brood who doesn't need any help. With the money from [his] book and movie he decided to buy an apartment in Brooklyn," 3,000 miles from Marin County, where the tribe lives.

About magical realism, Allende is equally straightforward. She believes she is surrounded by spirits, particularly that of Paula, who appears to have haunted their original home and obligingly moved over to their new one to thump on walls and move furniture. Allende prays often. She belongs to a women's group called the Sisters of Disorder to whom she gives frequent praying assignments. She always starts her new books on Jan. 8 and accompanies this ritual by lighting new candles. She maintains an ancestor altar with flowers, candles and photos. And when Willie builds her that new home, she unhesitatingly dubs it "the Castle," endowing it with an air of magic and mystery and appointing herself its "Mistress." There are ceremonies during which the tribe sits in a circle and takes turns divulging secrets. ("Willie said that he was anguished over the situation of his children: Jennifer, lost to us, and his two sons on drugs.")

What's missing from this memoir is any answer to the question, why? Why does Allende do these things, and why does she write about them? It's fairly easy, if you think primitively, to figure out why she pulls out the tar brush for her husband's children, but what about this obsessive need for a "tribe"? Is Allende trying to recreate for herself the storied home in The House of the Spirits? Why must she be "Mistress of the Castle"? Couldn't she just be the "Author in the House"?

At the end of this narrative, we know next to nothing of what drives Allende, or what informs her longings. Her tone is jaunty, self-congratulatory, even triumphant throughout: another reason to pose the question, why? ·

Carolyn See's latest novel is "There Will Never Be Another You."

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