This book was a pick for one of my book groups, and a very nice one. I’ve never read any Isabel Allende, and now I’m glad I did.
Eva Luna is the story of a young woman of mixed heritage born in a South American country whose life spans the second half of the twentieth century. The novel covers a lot of territory, from her mother’s early life up until Eva Luna meets the man whose story we have been hearing throughout the novel careening towards her own, Rolf Carle. Many learned people on the back cover describe this book as sensuous, and yes, that is just the word. You can smell Eva Luna’s life through the pages. Rolf Carle’s cousins smell of cinnamon, clove, vanilla and lemon, and eventually when they marry some candlemakers, beeswax. When Zulema, the wife of the Turk, sets out to seduce her nephew, Kamal, the scent and feel permeate the whole of the house; her seduction becomes like a living breathing thing for Eva Luna, like an animal her lust has created. I don’t know if Allende would be considered magical realism, but Eva Luna’s mother stays with her and talks to her throughout the novel long after her death, and when Eva Luna starts writing a script for a telenovela (soap opera), the characters come alive and live in the apartment with her.
Sensuality has always meant for me an enjoyment of your senses. Someone who is sensual likes the experience of being in their body–tasting, smelling, feeling.. That includes but is not limited to sex. I love the way in this book sex is seamlessly integrated into the general sensuality. Sex is something to be enjoyed, frolicked in, celebrated. It is simply a part of life.
Eva Luna is the focus of the novel, but it’s full of a cast of great supporting characters for whom Eva Luna (as the first person narrator) dutifully recounts their stories. There’s a transsexual named Melesio and then Mimi. The street boy turned guerilla Hubert Naranjo. The Turk and shopkeeper with a harelip, Riad Halabi. I love how many of these characters and the places described defy our expectations of what a South American country might be like and who the people are living there.
Eva Luna is telling us this story, because that is who she is. She’s a storyteller, and I like the way her stories are woven throughout the book. Under its enjoyably dreamy surface, I believe this novel is very much about the nature of stories and the tellers of stories. And I don’t know exactly what the message about stories is, but perhaps this is one. It is possible (and perhaps preferable) that stories be light and enjoyable while also telling us something important. You can do both at once.
“I stopped examining myself in the mirror to compare myself to the perfect beauties of movies and magazines; I decided I was beautiful–for the simple reason that I wanted to be. And then never gave the matter a second thought.”
“She believed that men had it best; even the lowest good-for-nothing had a wife to boss around. And years later I reached the conclusion that she may have been right, although I still cannot imagine myself in a man’s body, with hair on my face, a tendency to order people around, and something unmanageable below my navel that, to be perfectly frank, I would not know exactly where to put.”
“It seemed as if I had lived many lives, that I had turned to smoke each night, and been reborn each morning.”
Upcoming review: Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman