May Book Review - 'Long Petal of the Sea' by Isabel Allende

May 21, 2020

One of the lesser known migrations in modern history was that of refugees from the Spanish Civil War to Chile in 1939.  South American author Isabel Allende tells an engrossing tale of two refugees who make the trip halfway around the world, only to become embroiled in Chile’s own internal upheaval.  Amy Mills reviews Allende’s latest book, A Long Petal of the Sea.

Reading a great novel from another place and time can give needed respite from the dilemmas we’re experiencing today.  I was delighted to find myself transported to the history and culture of Spain and South America as I turned the pages of Isabel Allende’s latest work of historical fiction, A Long Petal of the Sea.  The title is a description of the geography of Chile by its famous poet, Pablo Neruda, who also plays a pivotal role in the book.

Events in Spain and Chile from 1936-1994 provide the backdrop for a maturing love story as well as a multi-generational family saga with themes of loyalty, separation, upheaval, resiliency, and that understated element of many family histories – unplanned pregnancies.

The initial setting is the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s, and the trounced rebellion against Franco’s dictatorship. Our main characters are refugees Victor and Roser, a couple thrown together in the exodus from Spain.  After each manages to flee over the Pyrennes to France, they’re surprised to find it’s another country hostile to Spanish war refugees.  With a stroke of luck and a marriage of convenience, they’re able to secure passage on the ship Winnepeg to Chile.  Here, they work and integrate into their adopted country and its culture. But gradually Chile also becomes a political battleground. A socialist government is elected in 1970 and is then displaced in a bloody military coup in 1973.  Victor and Roser are forced to flee once again, this time to Venezuela. They eventually return to a changed Chile in 1983 and pick up the pieces of their lives.

I’ve been a fan of Isabel Allende’s books for about 30 years, and I find this recent novel her most interesting and incisive work so far.  With a blend of history superimposed with relatable fictional characters, Allende skillfully explores separation and exile, the nature of human bonds, and the experience of having to choose sides, or in some cases, having sides chosen for you.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende, is available as an e-book and in hard copy from the Park City and Summit County Libraries.

This is Amy Mills, for Friends of the Park City Library and KPCW.