I’ve read most of Isabel Allende’s books, and I didn’t love the last few (most recent was Island Beneath the Sea). Maya’s Notebook had a different feel from her others (it’s set in modern times, for one thing). Yet it felt like a return to the storytelling that Allende is so good at.
The story begins with nineteen-year-old Maya traveling to a remote part of Chile (the island of Chiloe) to hide from her “enemies”. It’s a little difficult to believe this young woman could possibly have enemies that require running to the Southern Hemisphere. Maya’s grandmother, her “Nini”, seems like quite a character, so you’re not sure how much these enemies are real and how much her grandmother just wants her to live in Chile, the place she emigrated from in 1973 after a violent political coup.
Maya writes in her notebook about her travel to Chile, and then remembers her childhood with her loving grandmother and grandfather in Berkeley. Maya’s mother dropped her off as a baby at her father’s doorstep. Her father, an airline pilot, promptly handed the baby off to his parents. Maya is raised by her strong-willed Nini and Nini’s second husband, an African-American astronomer. So it’s clear Maya has some abandonment issues, but also she’s had the benefit of a loving if non-traditional family.
Unfortunately, Maya’s beloved grandfather dies of cancer when she’s fifteen, and she has a hard time dealing with the loss.
The rest of the story unfolds at a slow pace as Maya adjusts to her new life, and it’s one of those books where, as she grows to love living in the small town of Chiloe, she comes to learn more about herself. It’s a plot that’s been done before – but it’s done very well here.
And in case you think I’m telling you too much, Maya’s story will definitely surprise you. In another writer’s hands, the events of Maya’s life might not be believable, but Allende really draws you in and keeps you wanting to know what happens next. Also, if you’ve read Allende, you know she writes in a mystical sort of way, even when it’s about hard-edged subjects. Believability is not the point; reading Allende is a leap of faith.
The strengths of this book are Allende’s sense of place (Chiloe, Berkeley, Las Vegas), and the strengths of her characters, particularly Maya’s grandparents. You can see Allende’s love for Chile in the way she writes about it.
I will say this book runs into some slow parts about half-way through, and I actually put it down for a bit and picked up something faster-paced (The Bone Season). But I went right back and I’m glad I did.
Is this book as good as House of the Spirits or Eva Luna? No, and I doubt her books ever will be. But I grew to love the characters in this book and appreciated everything Allende was able to pull together. Much better than her last few books.