Celebrated Chilean-American writer Isabelle Allende has chronicled most of her life through words. Known for her sprawling, multigenerational and multinational narratives, she’s published more than 20 books that have been translated into 35 languages, starting with 1982’s “House of the Spirits.” In her newest novel, “In the Midst of Winter” (Atria Books), she shakes her storyteller’s snow globe and takes readers to a stunning array of destinations in the Americas, from the grim streets of Santiago to a small native village in Guatemala, a New York blizzard to bright, lively Rio de Janeiro. Focusing on three damaged and disparate characters, trapped in a snowstorm, the author’s main message comes through loud and clear: A condemnation of modern-day isolationism and xenophobia in her adopted home, the United States.
Although the story spans decades and global borders, it begins in the Northeast, in present-day Brooklyn during a raging winter storm. Richard, a lonely anxiety-ridden NYU professor, and Lucia, his Chilean expat basement-dwelling tenant and academic colleague, are shivering through the storm in an old brownstone. On an errand of mercy for one of his cats, Richard ventures out and gets in a car crash with a young Guatemalan immigrant named Evelyn. Richard, Lucia and Evelyn suddenly find themselves in a life and death situation and, through kindness and solidarity, they find strength and support.
Nanny Evelyn cares for the disabled son of a violent and dodgy employer and she is terrified since she has borrowed the family’s Lexus without permission. When Evelyn makes a dreadful discovery in the now unlatchable trunk, she cautiously but desperately turns to Richard for help. Stoic Richard lets down his guard and, with Lucia’s assistance, the three band together to “dispose of the evidence.” What follows is an escapade marked by moments of reflection, longing, terror and little bit of slapstick comedy.
The book has it all — romance, murder and intrigue — and it may sound a bit cinematic, but the author brings humanity to her characters that can’t be caught on film. Life-embracing, funny, and tough Chilean journalist Lucia is hoping, still, for love after surviving political violence, exile, loveless marriages and cancer. Richard, the American son of Holocaust survivors, suffers unbearable guilt over his long-concealed secrets of a disastrous marriage to a passionate Brazilian woman earlier in his life. In their life in Rio de Janiero, several devastating family tragedies left him emotionally frozen and insecure. And Evelyn made the terrifying journey to the U.S. from her poor Guatemalan village after being brutally assaulted by gang members who killed her two brothers. But, instead of reducing the nanny to a helpless victim or “illegal” migrant, as many Central Americans are portrayed in literature and film, Allende chooses to feature her remarkable fortitude in the face of overwhelming adversity.
All three are beaten by tempests far harsher than the winter storm that sets the story into motion but it’s Evelyn’s story that is some of the best writing in the book. Allende uses her Chilean roots and her passionate stand for human rights in relating this story. Readers learn the painful truth of the escape path from Guatemala, through Mexico, to the United States border where U.S. custom agents are burned out with the hundreds of would-be immigrants seeking asylum. We also learn how illegal immigrants can simply disappear amid millions of Americans if they avoid law enforcement and institutions such as hospitals.
All the melodrama, particularly the murder-mystery that rapidly takes center stage in the three lives, serves as a device to throw these unlikely companions together and drive the plot forward. All the excitement makes for a page-turner, but Allende cleverly juggles the novel’s over-the-top events, capturing their importance without slipping into sentimentality. This is not surprising since Allende, in real life, has traveled the world, and experienced untimely and tragic deaths, political uprisings and exile. More than anything, it’s the human insight and empathy Allende instills in her characters that grounds the story and the relationships among the characters allow her to revisit her recurrent themes: the mystical power of women and, as Lucia tells Richard, “the binding power of love.”
The title of the book comes from Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer. For the summer that we all have inside to manifest we need to open the heart and take risks.” Because of their inner strength, the characters bloom over the course of the narrative and find their invincible summers. “In the Midst of Winter” is bound to melt even the coldest heart.