Review

The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir

by Isabel Allende

"It's hard for me to let go of people," Isabel Allende said of
her deceased daughter Paula. "[She] is unreachable; only in my love
for her are we in contact. She comes in signs." Pretty intense,
right? Well, buckle up my friends. If you delve into THE SUM OF OUR
DAYS, Allende's most recent book, you will find a bumpy, funny,
delectable, brutally honest and provocatively fascinating look into
the private life of her extensive and complex brood of a family.
Written in daily letters to her mother back in Chile, Allende pours
out the deepest and darkest secrets of her extended family
post-heartbreak, the early death of her only daughter. In the wake
of her mourning, she weaves a long and wavy path to her true heart,
and every word is riveting.

Allende is known as a "magic realist," her stock in trade as an
author. However, there is little magic and lots of realism in THE
SUM OF OUR DAYS. For a nation obsessed with "family values," its
newest citizen goes completely against the traditional American
grain with her topsy-turvy, emotionally harrowing life. Her second
husband is a garrulous and outspoken attorney and advocate for
illegal immigrants in the Bay area; his daughter is a drugged-out
mess in and out of jail cells, which he hopes will teach her the
"consequences" of her criminal acts; and her son is married to a
former member of Opus Dei, who walks a straight (and completely
bigoted) religiously fueled road. There are endless characters in
THE SUM OF OUR DAYS, all the more intriguing because of the
unflinching honesty and bright light that Allende shines on their
every course of action, their every life decision, and the way that
it intersects with her own difficult life.

The death of her daughter has been the subject of another book
(simply titled PAULA). It is clear from the content of this memoir
that her broken heart will never completely mend, and the
well-established credo that no parent should have to bury a child
is utmost in her mind. Allende pulls no punches when discussing the
bottomless love she has for her children, in life as in death, and
it is this moving portrayal of motherhood that gives great heart to
the stories about her family members. This is really a book about
not just the sum of her family's "days," but the sum of her own
multitudinous adventures as writer, mother, wife, lover, daughter,
activist, immigrant, teacher…

If you think that it would be an epic maneuver to pull it all into
one book, you would be right. But Allende somehow finds just the
right anecdotes about each member of the family to make the reader
feel as if he or she was being escorted into the author's boudoir
and seduced into the vortex of her life and longings. It is rare
that desire has so many names, but Allende finds them all and, in
short order, brings them to life on the page with a power that
towers over so many of the recent memoirists in this popular genre.
There are no lies here, there is no Frey or Burroughs amping up of
actual life to ensure a chuckle or gulp from the reading public.
Allende doesn't have to play tricks to make your heart and breath
rise and fall, to make your stomach tumble each time Willie's
indigent daughter almost dies (again!) or your heart break each
time Allende looks back on a moment during her daughter's strangely
quick descent into serious illness.

THE SUM OF OUR DAYS is exactly what a memoir should be: a heartfelt
and candid look at the good, the bad and the oh-so-ugly that makes
up a truly human life. Like reality TV, we are hooked and cannot
look away, whether we like it or not. This is a rewarding emotional
rollercoaster in which a world-renowned author searches for the
same answers as the rest of us, sidestepping disaster upon disaster
with a warmth of spirit and an everlasting hope that any reader
will find unbearably inspiring.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on April 27, 2011

The Sum of Our Days: A Memoir
by Isabel Allende

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2008
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 006155183X
  • ISBN-13: 9780061551833