Isabel Allende Llona




            Born: 2 August 1942

            Little known facts:

In 1962 Isabel Allende worked as a translator for romances written by Barbara Cartland—a job she lost ultimately because she injected realistic dialogue and modified endings to reflect women’s independence. “The female protagonists were all retarded. I improved them,             and of course I was fired.” (Mabe)

 “8 January—it is the only day I ever start a new book.” This is the same day she sat down to write to her dying grandfather in 1981 in a letter that in time evolved into the manuscript of her first novel, The House of the Spirits. (de Bertodano)

 Allende had the honor of carrying the Olympic flag at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy in 2006 (World Biography) along with Sophia Loren, Susan Sarandon, Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, and Cambodian anti-slavery crusader Somaly Mam. (Snodgrass)

Much better known facts:

Her father’s cousin, Chilean president Salvador Allende, who she addressed as Tío, committed suicide in 1973 immediately after giving a farewell address on the radio and rejecting an offer of safe passage out of the country during a right-wing military coup against his Socialist government. (Bio)

The House of the Spirits became an international bestseller and was translated into nearly 40 languages. Some have translated that into “setting Allende on a path to become the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author.” (de Bertodano) Corín Tellado, the highly prolific Spanish writer of romantic novels, may become uneasy upon discovering this, but not any time soon. And Gabriel García Márquez and Lope de Vega are still resting quietly.

Snap Shot

Isabel Allende Llona is a popular, commercially successful Chilean-American novelist. She writes often—but not always—in the magic realism tradition and is considered one of the first successful women novelists from Latin America. Her novels are based in part on her own experiences and immersion in the folklore and history of her culture, often focusing on the involvements and proficiencies of women, weaving myth and realism together often in a realistic geo-political context. Since 1982, she has written nineteen novels, four memoirs, and three young adult novels. She lectures, does book tours, and teaches literature at several US universities. She currently resides in California with her second husband. Isabel Allende became an American citizen in 2003. 

Early Life and Non-Writing Career

Allende was born in August of 1942, in Lima, Peru where her father, Tomás, a Chilean diplomat, and her mother, Francisca (Llona Barros) Allende, had been posted. They divorced when she was three, and she returned with her mother to Santiago, Chile. Allende graduated from a private high school at 16 and began working for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Santiago as a secretary. Later, she became a journalist, editor, and advice columnist for Paula magazine and a television interviewer. (World Biography)

The coup unseating Salvador Allende changed the inclination of her world irrevocably. She did not think that the new Pinochet regime would last, but, after several months of receiving death threats, she left Chile for Venezuela with her husband and their two children. Although she had established herself as a journalist in Chile, she had a difficult time finding work in journalism in Venezuela.

Fast forward thirty odd years and overlook her writing career for a moment. Allende is admired today for her community work: the Isabel Allende Foundation cooperates with non-profits in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Chile to “protect, empower, and inspire women and girls.” Allende believes we need feminine energy in the management of the world. (Hip Latina)

Major Relationships

In 1962, she married her first husband, Miguel Frías, an engineering student. “He was the first boy who looked at me, and I clung to him like a crab.” They were together for 25 years and she proudly notes he and his second wife are in the first row of events she is featured in during visits to Chile. Their daughter Paula was born in 1963, and a son, Nicolas, three years later. (de Bertodano) They divorced in Venezuela in June of 1987.

During a lecture tour that ended in San Jose, California, she promoted the publication of Of Love and Shadows and met William Gordon, a lawyer and noir crime novelist in the fall of 1987. He had admired her work and they soon fell in love—in much less than one thousand and one nights. Returning to Venezuela after the book tour, she drew up a marital contract and sent it to “Willie” who subsequently accepted the proposal. They married in 1988, and she has lived with him in their suburban home in Marin, California, ever since with much of their mixed families nearby. (Snodgrass)

Allende describes her husbands as polar opposites: “Willie is a swaggering American lawyer, loud, my first husband is a very quiet passive man, a very good man and he didn’t deserve to marry a person like me.” (de Bertodano)

Writing Career

During her exile in Venezuela, Allende wrote an extended letter to her Tata in 1981 as already described and in the following twelve months, that letter grew into a 500-page manuscript dealing with 500 years of colonial exploitation. Drawing on inspiration from the verse of Pablo Neruda and the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez, she continued to develop The House of the Spirits, her first novel, on her portable Underwood typewriter. In spite of the fact that Latin American cultures had effectively denied the writing profession to women up to that point and under the cloud of her doubts she would be able to get it published, Spirits became popular quickly after she did find a publisher in Spain. The Danish writer and director Bille August adapted Spirits for the screen and it was released in the United States in 1994. Her memories of her family and the political dynamics of Chile are the source material and she weaves the characters and the plot by documenting the personal and political conflicts within three generations of a family in an anonymous Latin American country through the memories of three characters: Esteban and Clara, the patriarch and matriarch of the Trueba family, and Alba, their leftist granddaughter who is captured and tortured during a military coup. (World Biography)

Of Love and Shadows followed Spirits and focuses on the consequences of the switching of two infant girls at birth. One grows up to become the target of a journalist’s investigation, and the exposé of her assassination results in the reporter and photographer going into exile. The Detroit Free Press described Of Love and Shadows as “a frightening, powerful work,” in which Allende “proves her continued capacity for generating excellent fiction.” (World Biography)

Allende’s Eva Luna dealt with a relationship between a scriptwriter and storyteller and an Austrian émigré filmmaker. The novel received positive reviews; for example, Abigail E. Lee in the Times Literary Supplement wrote, “Fears that Isabel Allende might be a `one-book’ writer…ought to be quashed by Eva Luna.… Allende moves between the personal and the political, between realism and fantasy, weaving two exotic coming-of-age stories–Eva Luna’s and Rolfe Carlé’s—into the turbulent coming of age of her unnamed South American country.” (World Biography)

Allende followed in 1991 with The Stories of Eva Luna in which the heroine relates several stories to her lover Carlé. According to Alan Ryan in USA Today , “These stories transport us to a complex world of sensual pleasures, vivid dreams and breathless longings. It is a world in which passions are fierce, motives are profound and deeds have inexorable consequences.” (World Biography)

The Eva Luna stories were followed by The Infinite Plan in 1993 featuring a male protagonist in a North American setting—clearly a departure for Allende. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described the novel as a “Bildungsroman-cum-family saga that owes more to Judith Krantz than to Gabriel García Márquez,” concluding that it is “disappointing and mechanical.” Still, as novelist Jane Smiley pointed out in her Boston Globe review, “Not many [émigré authors] have even attempted writing a novel from the point of view of a native of the new country.” (World Biography)

Allende, whose 19 novels have sold more than 57 million copies in 35 languages, received the third annual Lawrence A. Sanders Award for Fiction in a ceremony at Florida International University in North Miami Beach.

“Given her astonishing world-wide appeal and her virtually universal critical acclaim, I think it fair to say that Isabel Allende is the very apotheosis of the awardee we had in mind when the honor was conceived,” says Les Standiford, founding director of the creative writing department at FIU. (Mabe)

Taking Another Look

Despite commercial success and claims by enthusiasts such as this for “virtually universal critical acclaim,” her work has drawn some challenges and some negative criticism. Harold Bloom, in writing the introduction to a volume of critical essays about Allende’s work he edited, said, “I can locate no aesthetic achievement in the immensely popular The House of the Spirits, or in Paula, or in the recent Daughter of Fortune. … Is Isabel Allende truly comparable to Gabriel García Marquez, or are we to seek her peers at a very different level, in the cosmos of supermarket fiction?” (Shipstead)

After publication of Shadows, the Toronto Globe and Mail commented that “Allende has some difficulty in getting her novel started because she has to weave two stories separately, and seems to be relying initially too much on her skills as a journalist.” (World Biography)

Magical Realism

Allende’s first novel The House of the Spirits achieved great exposure in being adapted for film as well as being adapted to the stage. As a consequence it became one of the best-known examples of the genre called magical realism—in spite of presenting some challenges for both adaptions. “What to do, for example, about a male character who shrinks as he ages, a dog the size of a horse, objects that levitate and a plague of ants that overrun a country estate but leave when asked?” (Rohter)

So, it should be no surprise that she has been labeled by some a magical realist author which she says irritates her that the label still follows her. There are those who challenge her as an author approaching the stature of the Latin Boom Four; there are those who challenge her as a magical realist at all, suggesting she is more of a Gothic or Female Gothic writer with a penchant for using historical contexts over a wide range of geography and cultures—some well beyond her South American roots.

Some detractors of Allende suggest her magical realism episodes are borrowed from García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera while others counter that those implausible events in question are recognizable within classical feminist literature like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Angela Carter’s Wise Children. (Snodgrass)

For those who love her work, find the criticism harsh, and want to blame the translator, Allende has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years and speaks fluent English complete with street vernacular. “She reads her English translations and offers notes on them.” Shipstead says, “it might be time to accept that this style, with all its limitations, is her style.” 


“My father left my mother stranded in Peru with two babies and pregnant, full of debts. Did he say anything? No, he went out to a party and never came back.” (de Bertodano)

“I am a complete feminist. I think it was a reaction against seeing my mother as a victim.” (de Bertodano)

“I have had darkness and tragedy but also a lot of success. I don’t think anyone can go through life without anything happening to them. With me, it just seems to be more exaggerated.” (de Bertodano)


“Latin America’s Scheherazade: Drawing on dreams, myths, and memories, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende weaves fantastical tales in which reality and the absurd intersect.” (González)

Pablo Neruda, the poet, told her that she’d make a better novelist than a reporter. “I think he saw that I was a liar. As a journalist I could not be objective. I would make up stories . . . At the time I was hurt because he said I was the worst journalist.” (Alter)

Allende’s 2013 novel, Maya’s Notebook, was her first to use a contemporary setting. “For such an established and successful author to step outside her bailiwick is a brave move but one that, unfortunately, does not open up exciting new territory. Instead, it yields a book so unconvincing as to raise questions about how many literary sins have been disguised by Allende’s historical settings and shielded by the vague label of magical realism.” (Shipstead)

AWARDS and PRIZES (selected)

1989: Member of the Academy of Language (Chile)

1991: Honorary Doctorate, University of Chile

1996: Honorary Doctorate, Columbia College

2006: Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony (Italy, 2006)

2010: National Prize for Literature (Chile)

2012: Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award in Denmark

2012: Lawrence Sanders Award in Fiction from the Florida International University

2014: Honorary Doctorate, Harvard University

2014: Presidential Medal of Freedom (USA)


The House of the Spirits, 1985; Of Love and Shadows, New York, 1987; Eva Luna, 1988; The Stories of Eva Luna, 1991


Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. Isabel Allende: A Literary Companion. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013.

Alter, Alexandra. “Isabel Allende on Superstition and Memory: A new novel conjures Haiti’s slave uprising and a path to America, “Wall Street Journal 23 April 2010. Web. 3 April 2015.

“Isabel Allende.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2015. Web. 29 March 2015.

de Bertodano, Helena. “The incredible life of Isabel Allende” The Telegraph Online, January 28, 2014. Web. 30 March 2015.

González, Fernando. The Boston Globe Magazine 25 April 1993.

Hip Latina November 25, 2014. Web. 5 April 2015.

“Isabel Allende.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Biography in Context. Web. 29 March 2015.

Mabe, Chauncy. “A Few Words with FIU Honoree Isabel Allende,” (South Florida) Sun Sentinel 29 February 2012. Web. 3 April 2015.

Rohter, Larry. “Staging Latin American Magical Realism, Complete With Songs.” New York Times 17 Feb. 2009: Biography in Context. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.

Shipstead, Maggie. “Isabel Allende and the Decline of Magical Realism” New Republic 23 April 2-13. Web. 5 April 2015.

Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.


 Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.

Richard Perkins
Richard Perkins is a regular contributor to The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review and a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program. He is writing an historical novel and revising a collection of connected stories.