Violeta by Isabel Allende part 2

This review of Violeta is in preparation for book club and on the second reading, I think I enjoyed the book more but still don’t think this is one of her best. In the previous review, I mentioned that it was the same story as The Long Petal and I still think that. The themes are similar although the context has changed: domestic abuse, pregnancy and motherhood, relationship with the land, love, family and the role of women. So, I’ll try and answer some of the questions.

The story is told in the form of a letter. What does this add to the effect of the novel?

The book is a letter to her grandson, Camilo, who she has raised and then watched as he became a priest and worked in some difficult places. The letter allows Violeta to reflect back on her life and to give a one-sided view of it – they are a gift to unreliable narrators as they cut out the middleman (an omniscient narrator). We are reminded at regular intervals that this is a letter as Violeta addresses Camilo directly. Letters allow us to overshare, and here Violetta tells her grandson all about her sex life, to reflect and to remember only that which you wish to. It isn’t a letter that is informal, in fact to me it reads like a book, it has the grammar of a novel, but it also is proof of another person’s existence and, in this book, their love for the person they are writing to. The emotional impact can be greater in a letter, in fact can almost be like writing dialogue but the danger is that you tell more than you show and I think this happens in Violeta.

The country is unnamed in the book. How did the open-ended setting effect your reading?

I spent the first section thinking ‘Is this Chile?’, the second section thinking ‘Yes. It is.’, and the third section wondering why Allende didn’t just tell us. I don’t know the history of Chile particularly well but by not telling us which country, she could have used the historical events out of order, changed them and used them to suit the story rather than making the story fit them. It provides a form of literary freedom. But this is contrasted with the naming of other countries that are important to the story such as Norway that takes in Violeta’s son as a refugee and where her husband Haske comes from.

How does Allende capture the ways in which we love? How does her capacity for love change over time?

In its simplest form, Allende shows love that is deeper, quieter, more unexpected and understood only later in her life in some cases. Her love for Fabien, her first husband, was more out of sexual curiosity, what was expected of her and came as a complete shock at first because she had little exposure to young men. Bravo was again not love, more an obsession that kept calling long beyond its shelf life. It consisted of abuse, both physical and emotional, and was not reciprocated long term. Cooper was a gentleman despite his job as a fixer and showed respect and an equality in the relationship. All of which prepared Violeta for Haske.

Her love for her children was immense but as she shares in the letter, she wasn’t always focused on her children and this led to trouble. Was Bravo abusing their daughter? I think so even if it was just an inappropriate love for her but I suspect more happened as suggested by the drugs and life style she moved into. Violeta loved her son as a young child but found him more difficult as he got older and became more radical in his political views. She says that she loved her grandson, Camilo, the most. She raised him and had the time and money to look after him even though he was a naughty child. This might be in part to compensate for the loss of his mother but also because she had learned what to do and was determined to do so.

The book does show that family is not just blood, and there are a number of characters who work for the family that become like family and are loved in such a way. There is Miss Taylor the governess, her aunts and Etelvina who looks after at the end of her life but most movingly is Torito whose life is lost protecting her son and who she eventually realises was a brother to her. In fact, Violeta does come across as a wealthy and entitled person who only starts to ‘see’ other people when she is older. Throughout the first parts of the letter she appears distanced with the world revolving around her until she sees a psychiatrist and breaks free from Bravo.

Discuss how the book explores memory.

Does the book explore memory? I am not sure about that. Of course, the letter is a series of memories – highs and lows – that are deemed important at the end of life but there must be so many more that have to be left out. Allende talks about the letters between herself and her mother as being a way of keeping her mother alive and this letter is attempting the same between Violeta and Camilo. It is a woman telling her own story so that the patriarchy can not own it but memories recorded are only ever one-sided if there is only one voice. In the book there is never any questioning of memory, whether something is misremembered or whether there is another point of view.

Violeta is playful and witty. What scenes made you laugh? What does humour add to the story?

I think I might have lost my sense of humour. I didn’t laugh once. In fact I didn’t find anything playful or witty. I actually found it to be one fairly long, flat retelling of a life that never questioned itself. I suppose there were some retorts that were witty – ‘the only good thing about children is that they grow fast’ and there is the incident of Miss Taylor taming Violeta when she has her tantrums. She carried on knitting. They lighten the story but no more than that.

My previous review was 2.5 stars but now I will give 3. This isn’t Allende’s best work but in reading it with a view to discussing it, I have found more in it than I did the first time round.

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