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A Long Petal of the Sea


A Long Petal of the Sea

Bestselling and beloved author Isabel Allende returns with an ambitious and epic novel spanning generations, continents and the full spectrum of human emotion.

Beginning in Spain in the year 1938, A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA immerses readers into the heart of the Spanish Civil War, which was fought between Republicans devoted to the left and aligned with anarchists and communists, and the Nationalists, a group comprising conservatives, monarchists and the devoutly religious. Much like America’s own Civil War, the Spanish Civil War divided communities, friends and even family members. In Allende’s gripping tale, it is the Dalmau family that gives readers a “boots on the ground” view of the true horrors and catastrophes of Spain’s war. We meet brothers Victor and Guillem, both on the frontlines, but with very different skill sets: Victor is an accomplished doctor known for his stoicism and patience, whereas Guillem is a fighter through and through.

During the course of the war, an accomplished young pianist boarding with the Dalmaus becomes pregnant with Guillem’s child --- a union treasured and upheld by the family. But when the war takes a devastating and life-altering turn, and it becomes apparent that the Republicans will lose everything, it is Victor who intertwines his life with Roser’s, setting off an unforgettable course of events written as only Allende could write them: with heart, intuition and a deep love for her homeland, Chile.

"A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is Isabel Allende at her best --- not only is she masterful in her depictions of families and their generation-long bonds and resentments, she is also passionate about her country’s history."

The main theme of A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is survival, and Allende is unflinching in her portrayal of the nightmare that was the Spanish Civil War. The Dalmau family, full of learned folks like doctors, teachers and creatives, has no chance to survive in a lost country ravaged by violence, and so Victor and Roser, along with Victor’s mother, Carme, flee for the French border. Unfortunately, they are among the 500,000 or so other Republicans with the same thought, and, in a gripping and painful event mirroring today’s refugee crises, France closes their borders and erects concentration camps, dividing Victor and Roser and putting their lives at risk. Allende holds nothing back as she describes the hopelessness and destitution of these camps, and yet the Republicans remain true to their vision for a new world, setting up newspapers, communities and learning centers. Their resolve captures the eye of Pablo Neruda, a Chilean poet who has been following the refugee crisis and vows to welcome as many refugees as he can to his homeland, a place he once wrote was “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.”

It is through Neruda that Victor, Roser and Roser’s son, Marcel, are able to secure passage to Chile --- but only by posing as husband and wife. Though Victor is a skilled doctor, he will have to begin his training all over again in order to practice in the new country, but Roser’s skilled ear for the piano amuses Neruda, and he promises that while Chile has seamstresses, lumberjacks and miners, they are always in need of pianists. Thus the SS Winnipeg departs on August 4, 1939, carrying over 2,000 migrants desperate for a new start.

In Chile, the Dalmaus meet the del Solar family, headed by the imposing Isidro and his devout wife, Laura. Fortunately for the Dalmaus, Isidro and Laura are away when the refugees arrive, so it is their son, Felipe, who welcomes them into his home. Although Neruda has vouched for Victor, Roser and the rest of the refugees, the Chile they meet is not immediately welcoming or hospitable. Chile, too, is battling a division of ideals, and though the left has some sway, there are scores of right-leaning men and women with enough wealth, power and influence to make life difficult for the left-leaning newcomers. Fully aware that they have been fortunate to find a sympathetic soul in Felipe, Victor and Roser swear to one another that they must uphold the ruse of their marriage as long as they are on Chilean soil, both for their safety and for the safety of their son/nephew.

Roser adapts to Chilean life speedily --- she adores their passion for music and appreciates the Chilean generosity borne of centuries of hardships. Victor, however, has trouble adapting; not only does he resent having to relive his years of medical training, he still suffers from nightmarish visions of bombs, murders and other components of the war. Still, the two develop a sibling-like love for one another, and their mutual respect and sense of duty to Marcel binds them into a happy union. Of course, adapting to a new country is only part of their problems. In addition to having to acclimate and blend in, they are still tortured by thoughts of Spain. When the political divide in Chile begins to heat up, they must decide where home truly lies and whether or not they are ready to sacrifice their happiness again to survive.

A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is Isabel Allende at her best --- not only is she masterful in her depictions of families and their generation-long bonds and resentments, she is also passionate about her country’s history. The historic facts she weaves into and throughout the book are difficult to read, but never more necessary than now. One cannot read about the Republican refugees arriving at France’s closed borders only to be placed into internment camps without thinking of America’s current refugee crisis at its Mexican border. As Allende shows us, when one country fails, it is up to others to step in and demand humanity in a world ripped apart by monsters.

Of course, it is easy to think of our own political climate when reading about the Spanish Civil War and the Chilean backlash against Communism, but the novel is far more personal to its author than that. To read about Chile’s storied and resolute people in Allende’s words is to be given a gift of culture, fortitude and wisdom. That her characters are as equally fleshed out and imagined as her setting is no surprise --- this is Isabel Allende, after all --- but that does not make them any less impressive, any less relatable or any less moving.

Combining the best of Allende’s many talents, A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA is a gorgeous work about hope, home and humanity. Possibly her best book since THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS, this triumph of a novel has a message for us all: “we human beings are gregarious, we’re not programmed for solitude, but to give and receive.”

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 24, 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea
by Isabel Allende

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593157494
  • ISBN-13: 9780593157497