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The Soul of a Woman


The Soul of a Woman

Best known for her breakout hit THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS and the bestselling follow-ups, DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE and A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA, acclaimed author Isabel Allende returns with a passionate treatise on the need for feminism and what it means to be a woman.

Born in 1942, Allende was, in her own words, “a feminist in kindergarten,” long before she or her family had even heard of the concept. As she explains, it was the situation of her mother, Panchita, that infused a young Isabel with rage and a visceral rebellious nature against male authority. A natural beauty, Panchita was raised to be a wife and mother, and although she achieved success in both departments, her life was upended when her husband left her and she was forced to have their marriage annulled, as divorce was not yet legal in Chile. Panchita was fortunate enough to be welcomed by her parents, but her life was full of gossip and prejudice in the years following her husband’s departure; even worse, she had neither the skills nor the finances to create any small freedoms for herself. Even as a child, Allende could not help but notice the similarities between her mother’s life and the lives of their maids, and she vowed then and there to be independent and live the life her mother never could.

"Much like Allende herself, THE SOUL OF A WOMAN is poignant, intelligent and eloquent, but with her willingness to be vulnerable with her readers, it feels less like a manifesto or meditation and more like a passionate conversation with a friend."

Although the idea of feminism was not yet being tossed around in Chile --- and especially not in her grandparents’ home --- by the time Allende came of age in the 1960s, the whispers of the first wave of feminism were just beginning. Full of anger, obsessed with justice and incited by male chauvinism, she became a journalist at a newly launched feminist magazine, Paula. Along with her colleagues, Allende drew inspiration from writers like Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan and focused on shaking up Chilean prudery and conservative, provincial mentality. She soon realized that she had a gift for humor and began a column called “Civilize Your Troglodyte,” where she made fun of machismo energy and --- against all odds --- became very popular with her male readers. As Allende quips, all of her male fans would tell her, “I have a friend who is just like your troglodyte,” never once seeing the similarities within themselves. But even as men laughed at her column, some women who were trapped by their patriarchal society felt threatened by her work and its ability to shake their foundations and domestic worlds.

Fortunately for readers everywhere, Allende’s work at Paula gave her not only an outlet for the frustrations she had been dealing with since childhood, but also the tools to challenge sacred notions like sex, discrimination and motherhood using the written word. She and her gang “wrote with a knife between their teeth,” ready to change the whole world in 10 or 15 years, give or take. Looking back, Allende can see how naive they were, but as she writes in THE SOUL OF A WOMAN, she has not lost her faith that change can and will be achieved. In this glimmering meditation, she shows her readers how women will make it all possible.

It is clear from her writing --- both fictional and political --- that Allende is a feminist not just in spirit, but in action and academia as well; she knows her stuff. However, rather than chronicle the history of every achievement or setback in feminism, she focuses on her personal journey with feminism, pausing along the way to define terms, break down misconceptions, and infuse her readers with an everlasting hope and optimism for the future. Feminism, as Allende defines it, is a “philosophical posture and an uprising against male authority. It’s a way of understanding human relations and a way to see the world. It’s a commitment to justice and a struggle for...emancipation.”

With the benefit of hindsight, the fight for equality that Allende once saw as a man’s game has been revealed as a folly; she now believes that we must not replicate the disaster, but mend it. In advising her readers on how to go about this monumental task, she explores inequalities of gender, race, sexuality, income and social status, reminding us all the while that there is not one system that is not built on patriarchal beliefs, and that men have used these systems --- and the labels, laws and punishments that come with them --- to control and confine women. Pairing her gift for prose with facts and figures, Allende lays bare some of the biggest and most complicated issues in the world, distilling them into brief statements that pack a major punch.

Much like Allende herself, THE SOUL OF A WOMAN is poignant, intelligent and eloquent, but with her willingness to be vulnerable with her readers, it feels less like a manifesto or meditation and more like a passionate conversation with a friend. Along with her dealings with feminism, Allende discusses her sexuality, marriages, vanity and literature as if she is speaking to a trusted confidante, not a distant reader. By juxtaposing these heartfelt and intimate moments with frank discussions on aging, violence against women and sexual assault, she compels us to understand the ways that these issues affect us all, even when we feel safe in our homes. She also implores us to join the fight in whatever way we can so that the world will be safer for our daughters and granddaughters, as well as for our husbands and sons.

Passionately written and brimming with hope, THE SOUL OF A WOMAN is a joy to read and a gift of knowledge from one of the world’s most celebrated authors.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 5, 2021

The Soul of a Woman
by Isabel Allende

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593355628
  • ISBN-13: 9780593355626