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Responding to Isabel Allende's Of Love and Shadows

Updated on July 3, 2017

Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende photographed by Mutari
Isabel Allende photographed by Mutari

A Story of Magic Realism

I was quite pleased with Isabel Allende’s Of Love and Shadows because it reads well, has multiple interesting characters, and has a plot in which events of some consequence actually take place. One of the problems I have a much contemporary literature that I’ve read is that so little happens over the span of the book. David Lodge’s Nice Work comes to mind, and while her writing is well-crafted, Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, is guilty of some inactivity, too. I was relieved then, that in spite of somewhat uneven pacing, Allende bothers to have a discernible plot in her book and follows through with not only the major events of the book but their repercussions as well ultimately leading to the (self-imposed?) exile at the end.

Of course, what I consider the pacing problem is a bit more complicated. For long stretches, Allende abandons the present action of the novel to explore the past or occasionally the interior monologue of a character. An example of this is when the reader is introduced to the Leal family, and Allende pauses to give a lot of background on every other character, even ones who only play minor roles much later in the novel, like Jose. Also, the action of the novel comes to a halt from pages 26-29 where there is page after page of events that have already taken place in the Leal family history. I know this characterizes them, and I’m not saying there is much bad with her technique. However, the constant stopping like this significantly slows down reading especially in the whole first section where little happens until the end when Francisco and Irene are involved in the militarized police debacle at the Ranquileo house. It’s disconcerting that tension is diffused so much in the novel by these long flights into the past especially in the beginning when the author should work the hardest to keep the action and tension constantly building to draw the reader further into the story.

Something else I noticed about Allende’s extended memory scenes is that they seem to violate the command of “show don’t tell.” The reader seems to be told a great many things about the past and present of many characters like Beatriz’s attitude toward her husband, her daughter, her financial situation, Francisco, and the current political climate which are all explored from pages 38 to 43 with hardly an interruption and little chance for subtext. Again, I’m not saying Allende’s choices are necessarily wrong or even bad, but I do want to know how she gets away with it. That would probably be one item worth looking at in-depth: how to reveal a lot of what is often considered expository or background information at one time without violating one of the common rules of story telling.

© 2009 Seth Tomko


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