"It seems that I was born to tell and tell and tell."
-- Isabel Allende, "The Sum of Our Days"Love, sex, betrayal, reconciliation, grief, death, despair, hope, bright colors, strong women and dashing men are the beans, rice and spice of Isabel Allende's latest book. Not so different from her other novels -- but this time the story's not made up.
Now and then, the feisty Chilean-Californian takes a break from writing sensual novels to turn out a memoir. "The Sum of Our Days" is the story of her "tribe" -- her extended family, a turbulent crew whose adventures and misadventures make her exotic fiction read like a church bulletin.
The book is written as a long letter addressed to Paula, Allende's beloved daughter, who died of porphyria in 1992 and whose life she chronicled in "Paula," the 1995 bestseller based on letters she wrote to her remarkably tolerant elderly mother in Chile. By chronicling her "unhinged" family's ups and downs since Paula's death and presenting them to her daughter's ghost, Allende is able to see them as a great family epic and to understand her own place in the story.
Unfortunately, what we get resembles a TV reality show more than a grand saga. That's not to say it's not an amusing read. Allende's memoir voice is chatty, warm, humorous and humble, and, just as she does in her novels, she ends each chapter with a suspenseful flourish, making the book hard to put down. We have to find out:
How will Isabel's enduring grief over Paula's death evolve?
Will Isabel and her tall, courtly husband, California attorney Willie Gordon, "a freaking wonder," be able to maintain the passionate love that brought them together 18 years previous?
Will Willie's three grown children conquer drugs, or will drugs conquer them?
Will Isabel's widowed son-in-law, Ernesto, find love again?
What will happen after Celia, the wife of her son, Nico, and mother of her three grandchildren, declares she's gay and falls in love with Allende's husband's son's girlfriend?
What will become of the wretched, ailing baby born to Willie's drug-addicted daughter?
Will Isabel's old friend, Tabra, be able to give up men who beat her and take all of her money?
What happens after our heroine witnesses a young man blow another's head off in a slum in Rio de Janiero?
What are Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, stars of the movie "The House of the Spirits," really like?
And so on. Who can resist? "There is no lack of drama in my life," Allende writes, and she isn't kidding. As this self-described busybody acknowledges, "This book could not be published without the cooperation -- in some cases reluctant -- of the main characters in this story. As my son says: It is not easy to have a writer in the family."
"Sum" is a series of interlocking soap operas, but Allende's wise eye and mind allow her to detect teachable moments and transcendence in a way that reminds the reader that his or her life, too, has elements of dream and drama.
Still, "The Sum of Our Days" is not half as heart-rending as its prequel "Paula," which in turn was not half as moving as her best novels. At times it's careless, as when she describes Mormons and Baptists in terms that reveal she doesn't know any, or dull, as when she repeatedly scolds George Bush, not that he doesn't deserve it, but please, Isabel, get us back to the adulterous affair your friend Juliette undertook -- what happened there?
This is not an important book, but it is a likable one. Any lover of Allende's fiction will find clues to her inspirations and passions, and, best of all, be able to understand why she is so good at creating wise, kind, strong heroines -- she has had to be one, simply to lead and love a family this tempestuous.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.