Review by New York Times Review
IN ISABEL allende'S new novel, a snowstorm and a car accident bring three people together on an unexpected journey that transforms their lives. As if this premise is not sufficiently hackneyed, Allende adds literary insult to injury by spelling it out in breathy prose: "Over the next three days, as the storm wearied of punishing the land and dissolved far out to sea, the lives of Lucia Maraz, Richard Bowmaster and Evelyn Ortega would become inextricably linked." The novel is riddled with such formulations. Seemingly intended to stab at the surreal, fablelike quality for which Allende is known, they come off as merely soppy and uninspired. In fact, the story owes less to magical realism than to histrionic crime dramas. Richard, a lonely, aging professor, sets out in a car from his Brooklyn apartment and collides with a vehicle being driven by Evelyn, an undocumented immigrant who happens to be driving her employer's car. She turns up at his apartment later that night, distraught and unintelligible, her Spanglish broken by a stammer she developed after suffering a brutal gang assault in her native Guatemala. Richard calls his tenant Lucia, a middle-aged visiting Chilean professor under his direction at N.Y.U., to help. The three split a pot brownie, as one does during blizzards with strangers, and swap life stories. It comes out that there is a corpse in Evelyn's trunk, which won't close thanks to the crash. She is terrified of returning the damaged car to her employer, the abusive Frank Leroy, who is sure to come after her if he knows she's seen the body. Naturally, Evelyn can't go to the police either. Moved by her plight, Richard and Lucia decide to help her dump car and corpse. This fantastic bit of plot - why on earth should they undertake such a risk for a stranger who, for all they know, committed the murder herself? - is supposed to be justified by their own immigrant histories: Lucia fled Chile's military junta in the 1970s; Richard, whose father escaped the Nazis, hears "his father's voice deep inside him reminding him of his duty to help the persecuted." As the trio journeys upstate, the novel flashes back through each character's past - Lucia's memories of a family fractured by war in Chile, Richard's doomed marriage in Brazil and Evelyn's tragic childhood in Guatemala. Some images are memorable: Lucia's murdered brother is "a feeling, a fleeting shadow, a kiss brushing her forehead"; a Guatemalan gangster has "tattoos spreading like a plague across his skin." Though inventive, these back stories are marred by simplistic exposition ("the deep crisis dividing Chile became unsustainable") and clunky dialogue ("this violence is the result of an endless war against the poor"). They plead with the reader to have sympathy for Latino immigrants, which is a fine humanitarian agenda. But heaps of suffering and misfortune cannot give depth to thin characters. Nor can love. Lucia and Richard fall into a late-age romance and, as in Allende's other love stories, their passion inspires some of the novel's most cringeworthy lines: She accuses him of having spent "many years with your soul in winter and your heart locked away." It also leads to a rosy, fairy-tale ending, which figures awkwardly in a novel that wants to tell the truth about immigration. This neat conclusion is a missed opportunity. It is difficult to imagine a more urgent time to tell stories of Latino immigrants. With references to Donald J. Trump and racial resentment in America, Allende is clearly eager to weigh in on the political moment. But the story is too shallow and the writing too syrupy to make for a thoughtful treatment of the subject. The characters' back stories plead with the reader to have sympathy for Latino immigrants. Elizabeth winkler is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal's "Heard on the Street" column.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [January 21, 2018]