Isabel Allende’s newest novel In the Midst of Winter creates some bizarre juxtapositions that in less skilled hands would be appalling, yet from those juxtapositions, she fashions a moving winter romance.
It begins when Richard Bowmaster, a University human rights professor, has a small fender bender during a record-breaking winter storm in New York City. He gives the young driver his information for insurance. Later that night, she shows up at his house, desperate for help, but he can’t understand her so asks his downstairs tenant and university colleague Lucia Maraz to interpret. The young woman is Evelyn Ortega, the car is her employer’s and she is terrified because there is a dead body in the trunk and her employer is a vicious, violent man. So, of course, they must help the woman get rid of the body by driving north to a remote lake where they can sink the car.
Their adventure begins with a shared edible and a night of sharing backstories. Evelyn is from Guatemala, a country that suffered horrific repression and is currently tyrannized by the international criminal gang Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. Lucia is from Chile whose brother disappeared under Pinochet while she was forced into exile. Richard lived in Brazil and studied the military coup that deposed Goulart and led to years of repression. All three have suffered extreme heartbreak which should be a jarring contrast to the sometimes hilarious madcap road trip complete with steaming piles of moose dung and almost slapstick scenes such as getting stuck in the snow midst pushing the evidence over a cliff. And yet, there is this open-hearted authenticity that makes it work.
Some might look at this story of an isolated, lonely man who comes back to life thanks to the insouciant vivacity of a romance with the vivacious Lucia as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, but with a sixty-two-year-old pixie dream girl. However, that is not fair to Lucia who herself goes from despair and alienation to embracing life. This is a story of redemptive love and the pure tub-thumping power of getting knocked down and getting back up again.
This is only the second time I have read an Isabel Allende book in English. Years ago, in a book group, we read her memoir of her daughter, Paula. From The House of Spirits to Daughter of Fortune, I read her in Spanish. For no good reason, I have not read her more recent books. There are so many books I want to read, sometimes I forget to keep track of authors I love.
I enjoyed In the Midst of Winter very much. I know I have frequently complained when authors tell, not show, and Allende sometimes does that, but there is a difference. When Allende tells, she puts the words in the mouths of her characters. They are telling, not the omniscient narrator. That makes all the difference. After all, do we know they are reliable narrators? Do they understand themselves?
I received an e-galley of In the Midst of Winter from the publisher through NetGalley.