Isabel Allende is known for her particular take on magical realism. In the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she brings a sense of wonder and enchantment to books about ordinary and extraordinary people in South America. Her latest novel, MAYA’S NOTEBOOK, is just as wonderful and enchanting as her previous ones, but mostly lacking in actual magic. The magic here is her storytelling, setting and unforgettable characters.
"MAYA’S NOTEBOOK is lovely and readable, heartwrenching and smart, as one would expect from an Allende novel."
The titular notebook belongs to 19-year-old Maya Vidal. The daughter of a Chilean-American airline pilot and a “princess of Lapland” she only met once, Maya is raised mostly by her grandparents. Her “Nini” is an eccentric and compassionate woman who came to the U.S. by way of Canada from Chile. Superstitious and mystical but with a fierce practical streak, Nini doesn’t talk much about the details of her life in Chile, where she left in 1974 after the death of her first husband, instead focusing on the life she created for herself in Berkeley, California. Maya’s “Popo” is Paul Ditson II, a professor of astronomy who spent his career trying to prove the existence of a planet only he believed to exist. Together Nini and Popo provided Maya a loving and safe, if unstructured and indulgent, home while her father flew the world. But Popo’s battle with cancer and subsequent death affect Maya profoundly and bring to the surface her fears of abandonment and her hidden loneliness.
Just barely 16 years old, Maya begins to steal and do drugs, dresses like a goth vampire and stops going to school. With her father and stepmother far away and her grandmother suffering from depression, Maya is left alone to mourn for Popo and does so in the most dangerous ways. Running away from a rehab center, Maya is picked up by a trucker, raped and held hostage before being left alone in Las Vegas. There she is picked up by Brandon Leeman, who hires her to deliver drugs for him. For months she lives with Leeman, avoiding the police and rival crooks, befriending a young junkie named Freddy, and wondering if she will ever talk to her Nini again. When Leeman is murdered, after Maya learns the reality of his crimes, she flees Las Vegas and finds herself with her family again. But it is clearly not safe for Maya to stay in Berkeley and so she is sent to Chiloé, an island region of Chile, to hide from the bad guys and the cops, and to finally begin to heal. Her guardian there is an old friend of her grandmother’s, Manuel Arias, and when he opens his home to her, Maya’s transformation to health and happiness can begin.
Chiloé is an old-fashioned and beautiful place. And its struggles and joys mirror Maya’s own (though not too neatly; Allende is too masterful for that). Safe and independent for the first time in years, Maya begins to examine who she is and what she wants, what she is good at, and what she values. She begins to come to terms with the loss of Popo as she builds a relationship with Manuel and makes friends on the island. Things are far from easy for Maya as she grows up in Chile, but she works hard to make things meaningful. That interior work is what we readers are privy to as we read her journal, which goes back and forth in time, revealing layer after layer of her story and layer after layer of her heart.
MAYA’S NOTEBOOK is lovely and readable, heartwrenching and smart, as one would expect from an Allende novel. Chiloé (a real place, the second largest island of Chile) is a wonderful setting, fantastically rendered by Allende, and its inhabitants are compelling supporting characters. Maya is a frustrating and intelligent young woman whose growth over the course of the book is a pleasure to read. Manuel and the other main characters are interesting as well, though sometimes they verge on almost too remarkable and are all fairly stereotypical. Allende’s forte is not realism, which this novel purports to be, but a kind of fantasy where place is essential and transformation is mystical. And all that is at work here, too.
Maya’s voice is in no way authentic and the book is preachy at times, but Allende still succeeds in writing a well-paced and emotionally transporting novel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on April 26, 2013