A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel

Image of A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel
Release Date: 
January 21, 2020
Ballantine Books
Reviewed by: 

“Whether sharing a piece of history or capturing the theme of this fictional book through the words of a character, Allende beautifully reveals the mastery of her prose and the meaning of her tale.”

Devoted readers of Isabel Allende will likely be thrilled to see another novel from her poetic pen. Those who may have taken a break after loving The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, along with Paula, will be glad to see that she has recaptured her unique and distinctive voice, sharing that gift which makes us love her characters for their human frailties and their quiet fortitude. 

In this historical novel, the late poet Pablo Neruda, quoted at the head of each chapter, and the assassinated president of Chile, Salvador Allende (Isabel’s cousin once removed and former president of Chile), appear along with notable Latin American artists and writers. But the main characters, likely drawn from people Isabel Allende knew, or knew of, come from two families of divergent political persuasions whose paths continue to cross from 1938 to 1994, beginning with the Spanish Civil War and ending with democracy in Chile.

Inspired by the true story of Neruda, who commissioned a ship, the SS Winnipeg, to bring 2,200 refugees from Spain to Chile, the intertwined tales of the two families readers follow, track Victor and Roser, forced to marry for survival before they fall deeply in love years later; Roser’s son Marcel; Victor’s mother Carme; Ofelia, daughter of an elite Spanish family to whom Victor is attracted for a short but significant time; Ophelia’s mother, her maid, and her brother Felipe, among others.

They constitute an amazing cast of characters, each lovable and courageous in their own unique ways, making it a worthwhile journey to follow them from Spain to Chile with interludes in Venezuela, Paraguay, Europe, and the U.S. Theirs are the perils of political escape and subsequent imprisonment, the challenges of survival, the joy of reunions, the continual quest for belonging and identity, and the discovery of the thing that matters most, as Victor’s father puts it, love.

Whether sharing a piece of history or capturing the theme of this fictional book through the words of a character, Allende beautifully reveals the mastery of her prose and the meaning of her tale. Here she is describing candidate Allende: He was “so energetic, determined, and insomniac that one one could keep up  with him. . . . Victor [with whom he played chess] took on the hours late at night when the exhausted candidate needed to clear his mind of the noise of the crowds and the sound of his own voice . . . Allende slept very little . . . and would wake up as refreshed as if he had just had a shower. He walked erect, chest thrust out as if ready for the fray. He talked with an actor’s voice and the eloquence of a missionary . . .”

And here she allows Carme to articulate her story’s meaning. “Carme had said that if she died in Chile she wished to be buried in Spain where her husband and son Guillem were laid to rest, but if she died in Spain, she wanted to be buried in Chile next to the rest of her family. Why? Well just to cause trouble, she would say with a laugh. And yet it wasn’t simply a joke, it was the anguish of divided love, separation, of living and dying far from one’s loved ones.”

In her own words, Allende explains this book’s theme this way: “I have been a foreigner all my life,” she says, “first as a child of diplomats, then as a political refugee and now as an immigrant in the USA. Maybe that’s why a sense of place is so important in all my writing. Where do I belong? Where are my roots? Is my heart divided or has it just grown bigger? These are the questions faced by my protagonists in A Long Petal to the Sea, the title of which comes from a quote by Neruda. His poetry has always accompanied me in my nomadic existence.”