Book Review: Violeta


Violeta is the latest work from Chilean writer Isabel Allende

Violeta is a South American epic that buffets readers through a tumultuous lesson in South American history—economic collapse, dictatorship, hurricane, earthquake, and more. It’s historical fiction that doesn’t read like historical fiction. Instead, it reads like a memoir—profoundly personal and intimate at times. (Allende left Chile for exile following the 1973 coup that saw her father’s first cousin, Salvador Allende, overthrown.)

Violeta del Valle is the narrator for the journey, that begins in the aftermath of World War I, in an unidentified South American country. The story is told through a book-long letter to Viloeta’s grandson Camilo. The long-letter trick is a gimmick that could easily fall short in less skilled hands.

Violeta by Isabel Allende: A South American Historical Fiction Epic

Violeta—the only daughter in a family of five sons and the youngest child– begins her life during the Spanish flu pandemic. After Violeta’s father loses everything during the Great Depression, the family must leave the comfort of their mansion in the nation’s capital to adopt a more modest, rural lifestyle further south.

In Violeta, Allende gives her readers a look into the horrors of South American dictatorships, circa the 1970s, a decade when tens of thousands of people were kidnapped, tortured, or killed (many through U.S.-supported Operation Condor) for being little more than suspected of political opposition.

“The government was committing atrocities, but you could walk down the street and sleep soundly at night without worrying about common criminals.”

Violeta del Valle, “Violeta,” by Isabel Allende

Violeta’s son, a journalist, learns he is on the dictatorship’s black list, prompting him to flee, seeking exile in Argentina, then Norway. Allende devotes much of the book to Violeta’s long, passionate-but-troubled relationship with her son’s father; a relationship “held together by a perpetual cycle of hate and lust.” And it’s here that the book settles into its stride.

I read it on a single (snowy) day. It speeds through decades; although a little too speedy in some spots for personal tastes. I found myself wanting more, especially during the earlier decades. Young Violeta feels less developed than older Violeta. It’s little surprise, then, that it is the senior woman who charms are engages the reader most of all. Overall, I found Violeta mesmerizing, albeit devoid of a genuine dramatic arc. Reading Violeta’s words, at times, she seemed somewhat removed from the events—as if recounting another woman’s life.

The book delivers slices of history that may be the first forays into South American politics for many. She dishes it out in bite-sized pieces that are particularly palatable for non-history-buffs. However, if you’re a historian (like me) Violeta feels lighter than it could have been. (I would have happily enjoyed Allende digging into the same historical events to the tune of a few hundred extra pages.) This book could have been a beast, and in the end, I wanted it to be. But that may have more to do with publishing demands, paper shortages, and editorial directives than storytelling from the author.

The Bottom Line: Overall, Violeta is a good book. If you want an easy and engaging read that will likely teach you a few things about South American history while telling you a good story on the way, then I recommend this book without hesitation. I have no harsh criticisms of Violeta other than I wanted more—perhaps speaking of Allende’s mastery as a writer than any inadequacies of the book in hand.

Allende, arguably the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author, has authored numerous fiction and non-fiction booksVioleta, by Isabel Allende, is a sweeping historical fiction epic spanning a hundred years. Violeta is mesmerizing, rich, and delicious., including “Paula” (memoir), “Eva Luna” (fiction), and “A Long Petal of the Sea” (fiction).

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