“In the midst of winter, I finally found that there was within me an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus
What a sentiment — it speaks so much of hope and aspiration, the possibility of change, and yes, the return of passion.
No wonder it inspired the title of Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende’s most recent book, “In the Midst of Winter,” her 23rd. She has been published in 35 languages, and there are 70 million copies of her books in print worldwide. Perhaps best known for the glorious women characters of “The House of the Spirits” and “Eva Luna,” Allende can now add Lucia Maraz and Evelyn Ortega to that gallery of beloved creations.
Allende began her story, as she does all of them, on Jan. 8, honoring the birthday of her late daughter, Paula Frias. And then, life conspired with art a bit. She was in Brooklyn, largely the setting of her tale. “It was the time that huge blizzard happened in January. It was perfect and it was like the blizzard was the great metaphor for these people and the three days they spent together,” she said, speaking by phone from the office of the Isabel Allende Foundation in San Francisco.
“That sentence summarizes the whole book,” she said. “Three people who are living in a sort of emotional winter … but there is invincible summer waiting for us if we just have an open heart and let it happen. They find themselves in an adventure of life and death. They opt for solidarity and compassion, they help the person and, in the process, they find friendship, humor, even love.”
The three people are Richard Bowmaster, a professor of Latin American Studies at New York University, a man in terrible pain who lives a carefully considered life of order and boundaries and cats. He rents the basement of his Brooklyn brownstone to a Chilean journalist and writer who has come to lecture at NYU, but he rejects her offers of friendship and affection. When a cat gets sick, out he goes into the storm, rear-ending a car driven by a young Guatemalan immigrant, Evelyn Ortega, who later shows up on his doorstep. Trapped by the storm, the three exchange life stories, and an unexpected adventure begins.
So much of Latin American history is encompassed by these stories of lost loved ones, countries left behind, even a desperate escape through Mexico with a "coyote," a smuggler of human beings. What comes home to the reader is a full portrait of historical complexity, as well as the fragile path of an immigrant making her way in a new world.
“I have a foundation that works to empower women and girls mostly, but one of the themes my foundation has taken over the years is immigrants and now refugees,” Allende said. “68,000 minors enter the country looking for their parents, with the risk of being deported. When I was writing the book, Trump was not even a candidate, but no one was talking about them and certainly not talking about building a wall to keep them out … . Cases like Evelyn Ortega’s are in the air, so I didn’t have to invent anything except the trip across Mexico, which can happen in many ways, depending on how much money you have to pay the coyote.”
As the stories are exchanged, greater changes in understanding begin to take place as well. “When we read the numbers, that’s one thing, but when we hear the story, we really connect at the heart level with other human beings.”
Stories from Allende’s humanitarian work are an engaging part of her highly successful and inspiring TED Talks, and she stresses the importance of engaged listening, making an individual effort, putting names and faces to women who are doing extraordinary things.
“When you really hear another person’s story, you become involved automatically, responsibility comes naturally,” she said. “You can’t avoid it. There’s this divide growing and growing. Why don’t we sit down and tell each other stories? Why don’t we tell each other what we want?”
And then she shares a story from her own passionate life.
“I’m 75 years old,” she said. “When I started writing this book, I was also going through a winter in my own life, a long winter because my marriage was breaking up. I was divorcing my husband and not at a time when most people do and my life had changed, not exactly for the better … .
“A guy, a lawyer in Manhattan who was driving to Boston, heard me on NPR and he contacted my office and found out how to reach me and he started writing me every morning and every night, just to say good morning and good night. Finally, in October, after five months, we got to meet, and long story short, he’s moving to San Francisco. This is a guy who’s like Richard. He was very organized when he heard this person on NPR. He’s 74 — can you imagine? For once my writing was prophetic. I sort of invoked the spirit of this lover before I knew he existed.”
The lesson is clear in both book and life — passion is possible. So is survival and change and making a difference in the world, in Isabel Allende’s grand and inimitable style.
Isabel Allende discusses her new novel, “In the Midst of Winter”
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17
Where: Nims Fine Arts Center, Academy of the Sacred Heart, 4301 St. Charles Ave.
Tickets: Required. Go to gardendistrictbookshop.com