Book Review: Isabel Allende, A Literary Companion

First of all, may I just say: “Where have you been all my life, McFarland Literary Companions?” Seriously, I had never come across these publications till I saw this book pop up on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers List. When I checked them out further, based on this excellent book I was lucky enough to score, I was and am very impressed. I hope they continue to grow and provide more literary companions to many of my favorite authors over time.

So, why do I love this particular book on Isabel Allende? Let me count the ways:

1) This is one of the most thorough and organized books about an author and her/his works that I have ever come across. And, if you’re anything like me, that you want to know everything about an author and the rest of his/her oeuvre after reading one of his/her books, then you are going to want a literary companion like this one.

2) The book starts with a detailed chronological timeline of Allende’s life and works. It’s almost like a mini-biography, given how it covers all events in the author’s life thus far. There is an excellent set of references at the end of this section, should you wish to explore further. We even get an excellent genealogy here. Those of you who read and enjoy Allende’s novels will know why this is especially relevant here. Allende herself has admitted several times in interviews that she has taken a lot from her own life and her family members’ lives for her books – to the extent that some of them don’t speak to her anymore. Understanding that world and the events that shaped her worldview will go a long way to understanding Allende’s works too.

3) The next section consists of encyclopedia-like A-to-Z entries covering all existing commentary about the author’s works – whether about key themes/motifs that stand out or recur, or the significance of her characters’ names or even her technical approaches in writing certain works / scenes. Each entry has all the appropriate citations and additional reading references. With some of her more complex multi-generational novels, we even get handy genealogy trees for the fictional characters/families.

4) Allende writes predominantly about the Latin American world. Almost all her books have colloquialisms and native language words and phrases. And, depending on the edition you might be reading, there may well be no glossary available within it. Problem solved. This companion has a glossary section for all those words. You may still reach out to our mutual friend, Google, from time to time, but this is a pretty comprehensive glossary, I must say.

5) How many times do you find yourself getting frustrated when reading a story with historical events you know or remember nothing of? And, does searching for those historical details online interrupt your reading flow as you click from link to frustrating link? Well, Appendix A gives you an excellent timeline across Allende’s entire canon of works – a great starting point without having to get sucked into a seemingly endless online research loop when you’d much rather be reading the book.

6) While I’m sure that Allende attracts more than her fair share of journalists, critics, academics and researchers, I’m sure that her readership is made up vastly of lay readers (like the greater population here on LibraryThing, including Yours Truly). Appendix B includes “Writing and Research Topics”, which, at first glance, seemed to me to cater to the former group of Allende-interested parties. On closer scrutiny, though, I realized how the many thought-provoking questions in this section could easily be springboards for book club discussions or even, just, pondering on as one reads an Allende novel. You know how, sometimes, when you finish a really good book and you can’t stop thinking about it? How, maybe, you didn’t want it to end, really? When I get like that, I love to turn to the “Reading Discussion Guide” section of some books (not all editions have them, of course), to keep “living in” the book for a little longer. Well, now, here’s a nice set of discussion topics to help you do just that with Allende’s books, if you so wish.

7) And, finally, the index. With reference books, most of us typically start with the index section to look up a specific topic. So, while it needs to be as detailed as possible, just as importantly, it needs to be user-friendly. This book’s index satisfies on both counts.

Like other reviewers here, I have not read this reference book from cover to cover. But, I have spent quite a bit of time reading different pages across all the sections. And, I know that when I pick up my next Allende novel, this book will be close by my side to help me explore and enjoy the many complex layers of this author (whose works I like even more now, understanding them a bit more than when I first read them).

If you’re an Isabel Allende fan or looking to get into her works, I highly recommend Snodgrass’ Literary Companion to enrich your reading experience – as it has and will continue to do with mine.