A brilliant memoir from the celebrated Chilean novelist on friends, family and life in California, her adopted home.
Isabel Allende has sold more than 50 million copies of her books worldwide. The most beloved and successful of her books, ‘The House of the Spirits’, was based on her Chilean childhood, and her autobiographical works include the deeply moving ‘Paula’ – a family history written at the bedside of her daughter while she lay in a coma – and the fascinating ‘My Invented Country’, which explored the events of her native Chile where she lived until Pinochet’s military coup. Now, in ‘The Sum of the Days’, we have Isabel describe in an exceptionally vivid, human and deeply personal way her life in California where she has lived for more than 25 years.
The first page picks up from where Paula ends – her daughter never did wake up from her coma and died in 1992 – when Allende recounts spreading Paula’s ashes in her favourite part of the woods by their home. It is fair to say that Isabel has never recovered from losing her daughter but has managed to survive by keeping her husband, son, grandchildren as well as close friends – kindred spirits – central to her life. ‘The Sum of the Days’, based on Allende’s own journals and daily correspondence with her mother in Chile, reveals the author to be a dazzling, generous, warm and hysterically funny matriarch within her swirl of family and friends.
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Praise for ‘Paula’:
'Allende's best work to date…she has everything it takes: the ear, the eye, the mind, the heart, the all-encompassing humanity.' New York Times
'Allende's writing is so vivid we smell the countryside, hear the sounds, see the bright birds, smell and even taste the soft fruit. Moving through Paula's last days, we enter that world, and share it, gladly, sadly, gratefully, and ultimately changed by the very reading of it.' Julia Neuberger, The Times
'This is a tender, moving and vivid record of a mother's agony at the bedside of her daughter. “Paula” begins as a long letter as a way of giving her back the life that is ebbing away…the result is a mesmerizing story. In flawlessly rich prose Allende shares with us her most intimate feelings…an emotionally charged, spellbinding memoir.' Washington Post
'Allende brings the natural storytelling power so evident in her novels to this courageous testament. She shares her personal tragedy with a warmth and passion that make “Paula” exceptional.' Sunday ExpressFrom the Author:
THE SUM OF OUR DAYS
The Sum of Our Days is the most difficult book I have written. It starts where Paula ends - in l993 - and covers the recent thirteen years of our family in California. It is a long conversation with the spirit of my daughter in which I tell her what has happened to her family since she died. It has been a rather eventful time, to say the least: success and losses, great love and just as much conflict, joy and separation, births and deaths, drugs, divorce, arranged marriages, all the stuff that usually happens to people, but one has to use cautiously in a novel. Melodrama is part of life but literary critics eviscerate the author when they find it in a book.
I met Willie Gordon in Northern California, on a book-tour in l987. We fell in love, got married and thus I became an immigrant in the United States. Immediately I started the process of adapting to a new country and putting together an extended family because I could not imagine a life without it. Willie's family was dysfunctional: three of his children had serious problems with drugs and the law, so they were practically out of the picture for many years. I convinced my son Nico and his wife, to move from Venezuela to California. They had three kids in four years, so I had my grandchildren at hand. Also my daughter Paula and her husband, Ernesto, who were in Spain, announced that they too wanted to live closer to us. Unfortunately Paula suffered a porphyria crisis in Madrid, fell in a coma and ended up with severe brain damage. By the time she finally arrived in our house, she was in a vegetative state. Within a year, both my daughter and Willie's daughter died. And then it was as if our family had been cursed with the evil eye; we had one tragedy after the other for what seemed like an eternity, until eventually our bad luck run its course and one day the sun was shining again for us. Not all was bad. We never lacked the really important stuff: love, trust and good humor. We even managed to expand our little tribe by "adopting" friends in the roles of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Now I have six grandchildren, although they are not all blood related.
In The Sum of the Days I had the kind of problems that I seldom encounter with a novel because it is a very personal story. Paula is also a personal memoir but it is mostly about people who are either deceased or far away, so few of them could complain, while the characters of The Sum of Our Days are alive and very close. As my son Nico says: too bad that we have a writer among us. My answer is that we have nothing to hide; we have not committed any major crime that I know of. We shouldn't feel vulnerable by revealing about our family, as I have done in Paula, The Sum of Our Days and innumerable interviews. It is not the truth that makes us vulnerable, but our secrets.
I suppose that I am a born liar and that's why I feel so comfortable writing fiction, where I create the story, and I shape the destinies of my characters. If I so desire, I can kill them on page 60 (and that is what usually happens to beautiful females in my books). My only problem with fiction is to make it believable. A memoir, however, is an attempt to tell the truth, and truth usually is less believable than fiction.
In a memoir I don't control the plot, the characters or the outcome, I can only decide the tone and what to omit, but for a storyteller that is not really a choice. Even at the risk of getting in trouble with the people I love the most, I have to tell the whole story. Then, why tackle a memoir? Because I need to remember. What I don't write it, I forget, and then it is as if it never happened; by writing about my life I can live twice. When I announced to my family that I was writing about all of us, there was an uproar among our ranks: why on earth! I quoted the fable of the toad and the scorpion. The toad carried the scorpion across the river and when they were reaching the other side the scorpion bit him. Before sinking, the toad asked why he had done it - they would both perish - and the scorpion replied: it's my nature, I can't help it. Writers write, it's their nature, so my unfortunate family has to put up with me.
Memory and imagination are similar processes in the brain; they are both subjective and unreliable. Fortunately, I have been writing letters to my mother for more than three decades, in which I tell her the events, the feelings, and even the dreams of every day. In those daily letters all is recorded with the spontaneous tone of a conversation in the kitchen. At the end of each year she returns them to me, and they are now stored in a closet in my house. To write The Sum of Our Days I did not have to stress my memory or my imagination, just open the packages and select what I was going to tell. I see my life in Technicolor, on a big screen, like an epic movie, so I had to write about the highlights and shadows, but I chose to ignore the boring grays in between.
Of course, my small family had to read the manuscript. Half of them don't speak Spanish, so Margaret Sayer Peden, who has worked with me for almost twenty-five years, translated it into English. One by one, the members of the family confronted me with their versions. In some cases it was long and painful but in every instance it helped me to deepen into the stories and discover new aspects of these people that I thought I knew so well. With their help I rewrote the book and this time I did a much better job.
The Sum of Our Days was published in Spanish in September of 2007 and since then I have received hundreds of email messages and letters from readers that now feel as part of my family. The response has been as moving as the one I got for Paula but in a different mood because this is not a book about death, it is a celebration of life. I hope that you will also feel connected to my tribe.
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