The Soul of a Woman
In just 170 pages Isabel Allende manages to write a humorous memoir, an homage to her family, all of whom seem to have walked off the pages of her delicious novels, and a feminist plea for women’s rights and agency around the globe. The prolific author also reveals her joie de vivre, her resilience, determination, intelligence, and priorities now that she is in her seventh decade. She also shares her foibles and idiosyncrasies honestly and without self-defense.
This is Allende’s fifth nonfiction book. It follows 15 works of fiction and three books for young adults, a remarkable count for any writer, which is one of the reasons she is the recipient of several prestigious awards. When she is not in her attic crafting stories, she spends much of her time working on human rights, especially women’s rights. In 1996 following the death of her daughter Paula she established a foundation in her honor that awards grants to U.S. and Chilean nonprofit organizations that benefit women and girls.
Allende’s entire life journey has informed her work as both writer and activist, with a focus on women’s lives. As her opening sentence declares, “When I say that I was a feminist in kindergarten, even before the concept was known in my family, I am not exaggerating.” That identity was forged by observing the constraints on her mother’s and grandmother’s lives, hearing the lessons and instructions of her unenlightened but beloved grandfather, and watching women not as privileged as she was. Chilean machismo and the country’s historic events also influenced her thinking and worldview.
Determined to be financially independent, Allende entered the world of journalism before she was 20. But being deeply romantic, she soon married her first husband and had two children, vowing to become a good wife and mother even though she was “dying of boredom, [her] brain turning into noodle soup.”
Luckily, she returned to work as a journalist for a feminist magazine and her life took off. One of her early writing gigs was a humor column called “Civilize Your Troglodyte,” which made fun of machismo. Even men loved it. But it wasn’t until she was nearly 40 that she found the confidence that enabled her to write extraordinary novels like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna.
No matter what ideas or memories Allende shares in this gem of reflection, feminism dominates the messages of this book. Readers who have not been exposed to or engaged with the stunning lives of women around the world will be surprised and shocked to read what she reveals; those who are aware of the situations and conditions so many women endure, survive, and advocate against will welcome her calls to action. Early on we are reminded that “in most of the world, a woman’s value is tied to her her youth and beauty. For many women it’s difficult to navigate those waters; for most of us it’s a shipwreck.” It’s when she digs deep into women’s travails that one is truly awakened to the reality of their lives.
Allende also addresses sexuality, passion, and relationships honestly and humorously as we age. Now in her third marriage she describes her life as “a happy time” of shared commitment. It’s “not exuberant or noisy like joy or pleasure. It is silent, calm, and soft; it is an internal feeling of well-being that starts with loving myself. I am free. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody . . .”
Of her writing life, Allende says, “I am no longer tormented by an excess of discipline. . . . Now I write for the pleasure of telling a story . . . I write about what I care for, in my own rhythm. . . . The race uphill is over; now I stroll calmly in the land of intuition . . .” It is that kind of sharing that makes this lovely book seem like we are having “an informal chat” with this wise woman whose spirit is infectious.
It’s a chat that opens our eyes, encourages us to live meaningful, independent, contented lives, and makes us wish we could be friends with this fine writer and feminist icon.