I am completely obsessed with Isabel Allende’s writing. I read The House of the Spirits two years ago, and it blew me away. I remember coming away from it thinking, this is what I should have been reading all along. It felt classic and timeless and was written by a woman for women. I didn’t write a review and I truly regret it. I promise to reread it and write a full review in the future, and if you’ve never read Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits is the book I would label as Must Read and would recommend first. That said, we’re here to discuss A Long Petal of the Sea, and it was spectacular. I was nervous to start this book because what if my second ever Allende novel disappointed me! It has been almost 40 years since The House of the Spirits was published. It did not take long, however, for me to get past this initial nervousness and to become fully absorbed in the story of Roser and Victor Dalmau.
In fact, it was on page 8, upon introduction to a semi-minor character, that I felt confident I would love A Long Petal of The Sea. Above all else, it is Allende’s female characters—frequently strong, always strikingly developed, and never simple—that draw me to her writing. This is true for her male characters as well, but that is something that isn’t lacking nearly as often. So, when I encountered Elizabeth Eidenbenz, a nurse that follows war in order to be where she is most needed, I was hooked: “Her character had been toughened by her struggles against military bureaucracy and men’s stupidity; she kept her compassion and kindness for the women and children in her care.”
A Long Petal of the Sea sees the reader through an entire lifetime, beginning in Spain at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1938 and ending in Chile in 1994. I have a soft spot for multi-generational fiction, or fiction that follows characters through their entire lifetimes, which better describes what A Long Petal of the Sea does. Roser and Victor remain the central characters start-to-finish. I always find novels of this sort particularly heart-wrenching; it’s hard to watch the characters you’ve grown attached to get older and eventually die, even when they’ve led long and full lives. I say heart-wrenching, though, because it elicits the good kind of sadness in which acceptance and hope can be found.
While the novel closely follows two fictional characters, it is historical fiction that is very grounded in historical fact—which may seem obvious of a historical fiction novel, but there’s varying degrees to which history can be central to historical fiction, and in A Long Petal of the Sea, the narrative is very much structured around historic moments and historic figures of Spain and Chile. I found myself thinking a lot about the cyclical nature of history while I read, and how frustrating it is that, around the world, people in power manage to make the same mistakes over and over again. And I think that in A Long Petal of the Sea, Allende is making a conscious effort to demonstrate this, and then provide the solution, which is to remember and know and interact with the past.
But also within this historical framework is a fascinating study of love and relationships. The characters of Victor and Roser are a unique starting-off point for contemplating what a loving and successful marriage can look like. Allende so insightfully shows different types of love between people, and demonstrates that having love for one person doesn’t detract from the love one has for another. A Long Petal of the Sea is an astoundingly well-rounded view of what a life encompasses from one’s sense-of-place, relationships, idea of family, and everything else beyond.