three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
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0

A-The Sum of Our DaysAcclaimed Chilean-Californian writer Isabel Allende’s new memoir picks up where Paula (1995), her moving tribute to her beloved, dying daughter, left off. We profiled Allende’s life and work in our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

The Topic: "There is no lack of drama in my life," begins Allende in this letter addressed to the spirit of her daughter Paula, who died of a rare blood disorder in 1992. Allende describes the moment when family and friends gathered in the woods of northern California to scatter Paula’s ashes and goes on to recount the years that follow, relating the intimate goings-on of her extended family—her "tribe"—from her husband’s drug-addled grown children to her widowed son-in-law, a daughter-in-law turned lesbian, and the actors that have starred in the movie versions of her books. She also explores her own struggles and slipups as wife and mother and explains her methods as a writer—her rituals, her research, and the inspiration she draws from loved ones. Underlying the events of the past 13 years, however, are a mother’s grief and search for meaning in a capricious world.
Harper. 320 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 006155183X

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Is it fate, or simply the author’s innate openness to the world that makes her life unfold with the drama and richness of a novel? Either way, Ms. Allende, author of more than a dozen other books, including the memorable The House of the Spirits, executes this epistolary memoir with the same authenticity and poetry that grace her fiction." Beatriz Terrazas

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Any confusion over the players is redeemed by Allende’s vibrant voice, which is at once introspective and forthright. … One wouldn’t describe The Sum of Our Days as uplifting; there is too much hurt. But it is an inspiring and thought-provoking work." Robin Vidimos

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Like one of her richly textured novels, Allende delves into the personal lives, struggles and journeys of her own family and the marvelously colorful friends who surround her and create what Allende likes to call her ‘tribe.’ … Her emotions run from sublime to sorrowful, with dashes of humor, doubt, insight and an awareness of the spirits that guide her." Georgia Pabst

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Thanks to Allende’s masterful storytelling, this memoir reads almost like fiction." Jane Hoback

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s funny, insightful, moving and filled with Allende’s unique voice. Her confiding tone invites readers into her mind, her heart, her family, her past." Deirdre Donahue

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"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. … 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?" Pamela Miller

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"What’s missing from this memoir is any answer to the question, why? … At the end of this narrative, we know next to nothing of what drives Allende, or what informs her longings." Carolyn See

Critical Summary

What seems at first a series of short chapters filled with spicy anecdotes and gossipy chitchat proves instead a powerful meditation on the meaning of life and love. Nearly all the critics remarked that this engaging memoir packs as much suspense and drama as any of Allende’s novels. ("Allende seems to have no concept of what might be called boundaries," says the Washington Post.) Allende’s warm, friendly tone creates a highly personal and poignant narrative, filled with wisdom and humor. Critics agreed that, when compared to the haunting Paula, "one of the most moving books ever written about grief" (USA Today), The Sum of Our Days regrettably comes up short, lacking the emotional immediacy of its predecessor despite Allende’s dazzling storytelling abilities. The Washington Post also criticized a lack of deeper self-analysis on Allende’s part. Nevertheless, Sum is an eloquent addition to Allende’s work.

Allende’s Best Works

The House of Spirits (1985), which fictionalizes Chile’s 20th-century political turmoil, is Allende’s classic multigenerational saga and a magical-realist masterpiece. The Stories of Eva Luna (1991), which came after Eva Luna (1988), offers powerful modern folktales that exhibit the range of human behavior—the good and bad. Paula (1995), Allende’s first memoir, exposes the author’s own personal history as she comes to terms with her daughter’s illness.