We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Around the World”, in which we each picked a continent and had to match a book that takes place there and/or is written by an author from that continent.
For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!
Book: “My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile” by Isabel Allende
Publishing Info: Harper, May 2003
Where Did We Get This Book: Kate owns it;
Continent: South America
Book Description: Isabel Allende’s first memory of Chile is of a house she never knew. The “large old house” on the Calle Cueto, where her mother was born and which her grandfather evoked so frequently that Isabel felt as if she had lived there, became the protagonist of her first novel, The House of the Spirits. It appears again at the beginning of Allende’s playful, seductively compelling memoir My Invented Country, and leads us into this gifted writer’s world.
Here are the almost mythic figures of a Chilean family — grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends — with whom readers of Allende’s fiction will feel immediately at home. And here, too, is an unforgettable portrait of a charming, idiosyncratic Chilean people with a violent history and an indomitable spirit. Although she claims to have been an outsider in her native land — “I never fit in anywhere, not into my family, my social class, or the religion fate bestowed on me” — Isabel Allende carries with her even today the mark of the politics, myth, and magic of her homeland. In My Invented County, she explores the role of memory and nostalgia in shaping her life, her books, and that most intimate connection to her place of origin.
Two life-altering events inflect the peripatetic narration of this book: The military coup and violent death of her uncle, Salvador Allende Gossens, on September 11, 1973, sent her into exile and transformed her into a writer. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, on her newly adopted homeland, the United States, brought forth from Allende an overdue acknowledgment that she had indeed left home. My Invented Country, whose structure mimics the workings of memory itself, ranges back and forth across that distance accrued between the author’s past and present lives. It speaks compellingly to immigrants, and to all of us, who try to retain a coherent inner life in a world full of contradictions.
I am sorry to say that while Isabel Allende has been on my reading list for a long time, I haven’t actually picked up any of her novels. So “My Invented Country” was my first interaction with her as an author. In terms of the history of Chile, I did have a small familiarity with the Pinochet government/dictatorship, as in high school we learned about him. But all of my experience reading about him was through an American lens, which is problematic enough on its own without even adding in the fact that the CIA was the one to help put him into power in the first place. So I went into this wanting to get familiar with Allende, and to see a perspective on Pinochet through a Chilean’s eyes.
“My Invented Country” is a collection of recollections of Allende’s childhood in Chile, and what her life was like when she had to flee after Pinochet came to power. She also makes a lot of connections to how her childhood influenced her books, with a lot of references to “The House of the Spirits”. Given that I haven’t read her other books, I didn’t feel like I was getting as much from this book as one who had read them might have. Along with that, it took a long while to actually get to the information about Pinochet and what that dictatorship did to the country. By the time we did get to that, however, I really liked seeing her insights and how complicated it was in society, and even within her own family. And it’s undeniable that Allende’s writing is gorgeous. The way she described the people in her life, the people in Chile, the landscapes and settings, I felt like I was there and getting a full view.
So while I probably didn’t get as much from “My Invented Country” as I might have, it has encouraged me to actually pick up some of Allende’s books in the near future.
I have to echo a lot of what Kate already said. I had heard of Allende before, but of all the subgenres of fantasy, “magic realism” is probably my least preferred. So while her books have been on my radar for a while, I’ve never actually gotten around to reading any of them. And, like Kate said, that might have helped my reading experience with this.
In many ways it was clear that Allende was directing this book almost exclusively to her fans. There were a lot of references to her previous books, and this type of insider knowledge is just the sort of information I would gobble up if one of my favorite fantasy authors wrote a biography of this sort. It was also clear in the overall tone of the book. The writing was often light and witty, obviously tailored to be appealing to even the most strident “only fiction” readers out there who may be new or less used to memoirs. I think she was very successful in this regard, as I would fall in that category of readers who rarely picks up memoirs, and I found her writing to be very engaging.
On the other side of that coin, however…I also know very little about Chilean history, and I had been looking forward to learning more. Like Kate said, it takes quite a while to really get into the more informative aspects of the story, and here the writing style worked a bit against what I was looking for. She had some very good insights here and there, but all too often the actual deeper analysis of the time, people, and political upheaval was only briefly skimmed over. She would often continue to throw in the light, airy commentary amidst all of this. And while still entertaining, I was left wanting more.
Overall, while this may have not been the best introduction to Allende’s work, it did confirm that I enjoy her writing style itself. Her books will remain on my reading list, and I hope to get to one of them soon!
Kate’s Rating 7: Her writing is gorgeous and I really liked the information about the rise of Pinochet, but having not read other books by Allende I feel like I didn’t connect as much as I could have.
Serena’s Rating 7: Struck an awkward balance between a great writing style but one that seemed to, at times, work against the more informative take on the country and times that I was looking for.
Book Club Questions
- Had you read anything by Isabel Allende before reading this book? Did you see the connections that she made between her life and her other writings?
- How familiar were you with the history of Chile before reading this book? Did you feel like you got a sense of the history and the people who live there? Why or why not?
- What kinds of parallels can you draw between Allende’s childhood and your own childhood?
- Did this book make you want to visit Chile someday? Why or why not?
- Allende talks about moving from one place to another, and how having two homes an sometimes make you feel like you don’t quite fit in perfectly in either. Have you ever experienced anything similar?
- If you haven’t read anything else by Allende, did this book make you want to explore her bibliography more?
Next Book Club Book: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay