The Magical World of Isabel Allende in 6 Essential Books
These Isabel Allende books will not only lead you to a Magical Realism wonderland, but will also help you level up your Spanish proficiency!
Isabel Allende is a Chilean journalist, screenwriter, novelist, and published author, who today lives in the United States. She was born in Peru and has a Portuguese ancestry. She won the Literature National Award in Chile, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Isabel Allende books have been translated into 42 languages, and she has sold over 74 million copies of them. Famous titles include The House of Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Inés of My Soul, Paula, Eva Luna, and many more. The first two were adapted into movies, the third and fourth into TV shows, and the last one into an opera that Plácido Domingo directed.
You can find Isabel Allende books in English or in any other language—yet, the only way of delving into her magical worlds is reading them as she originally created them, in Spanish. Furthermore, if you read them in the order she published them, you will get to experience Isabel’s journey into mastery as of the early years until today.
Read ahead to know more about the author’s life, to get some guidance for your next literary adventure, and to discover why reading Isabel Allende books in Spanish will benefit you and your language skills.
Isabel Allende Biography
Isabel Angélica Allende Llona is the oldest of three children. She is the daughter of diplomat Tomás Allende and niece of Chilean president Salvador Allende. She was born in Peru while her father was the ambassador there, and after her parents divorced, she went back to Chile.
Later on, her other diplomat uncle Ramón Huidobro relocated to Bolivia where she went to an American school, only to move to Lebanon afterwards to an English academy.
In 1959 she moved back to Chile where she married Miguel Frías and had two children in Santiago, Paula and Nicolás. During that time, she worked for the Agriculture and Feeding commission of the UN. She later wrote and directed two magazines, and published books for kids. She also worked in two Chilean TV channels.
Isabel dabbled in dramaturgy in 1970 and premiered two different plays. However, after the coup against her uncle, she and her family had to flee the country in 1975 and exile in Venezuela until 1988. While she lived there, she worked on newspapers and published her first and most notorious book, The House of Spirits. She started promoting her work during that time—causing her to travel frequently, which accounted for her to divorce.
Isabel flew back to Chile in 1988 to vote dictator Pinochet out, leading to a democratic election where the opposition won. Once democracy was restored, she was awarded with the Gabriela Mistral Order of Educational and Cultural Merit by President Patricio Aylwin. She later got married to American lawyer Willie Gordon—they separated 27 years later.
In 1992, her daughter Paula died at the age of 28 years—due to a metabolic disease—in Madrid. This painful experience prompted her to write an acclaimed and autobiographical book by the title of “Paula,” and to establish the Isabel Allende Foundation to honor her daughter, who had volunteered in marginal communities as psychologist and educator.
Isabel Allende’s awards and distinctions are:
- The Novel of the Year Award in Chile in 1983
- The Author of the Year Award in Germany in 1984
- The Book of the Year Award in Germany in 1984
- The Grand Prix d’Evasion in France in 1984
- The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004
- The Trento University with a degree of Doctor Honoris Causa in 2007
- The Chile’s National Literature Award in 2010
- The Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award in 2011 (succeeding J.K. Rowling)
When Isabel Allende writes, she creates a time, a place, characters, and stories that come to life on their own. She says she doesn’t have an initial plan for every course of action or twist, they just happen.
She is part of a literary movement called Post-Boom, postmodern literature, or brand new literature (novísima literatura).
The main characteristics of this generation of writers’ work are:
- Use of easy-to-read prose with no existential concerns (unlike the books from the Latin American Boom movement).
- Indifference to creating new writing forms.
- Preference for historic novels as a genre, and exile as a common topic.
Isabel has written historical fiction, memoire, autobiography, crime fiction, and adventure fiction. It’s hard to believe it, but her critics have been relentless in condemning her work. Many say it’s literature for the masses and that her commercial success doesn’t necessarily mean she’s talented.
Conversely, others believe that her way of catching the reader’s eye, and creating fantastic worlds is pure skill.
Regardless of what her critics and supporters opine, it’s still a fact that she is one of the most-read, living authors of the Spanish language.
Here is a list of 6 books for you to explore and enjoy!
6 Magical Isabel Allende Books
The Isabel Allende books are perfect for intermediate or advanced Spanish students due to their level of complexity. It’s interesting to read each of these since the main characters have powerful perspectives and feelings towards the magical situations that surround them.
Although the settings are often real and history-based, there are some riveting and fascinating elements that become important as they are revealed.
1. The House of Spirits (La casa de los espíritus)
La Casa de los Espíritus is Isabel Allende’s star best-seller and one of the most important novels of the 20th century. If you choose to read only one of her books, it has to be this one.
It reached international success immediately after its publication in 1982 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soon after, it made it to the big screen starring Meryl Streep, Winona Ryder, and Antonio Banderas.
This enthralling, universal story of life, love, death, family, social classes, revolution, politics, ideals, magic, and spirits is about four generations of the Trueba family from the 1900s to the 1970s.
Isabel wrote it in magical realism style, with a postcolonial Chile setting.
The story starts with a memory of a little girl named Clara del Valle in the middle of a Catholic holiday. The things that happen on the first day set the tone of the whole novel. She wrote in her diary until her last day.
On the other hand, Esteba Trueba is a humble mine worker, and is looking to raise money to marry his girlfriend Rosa del Valle. But she dies unexpectedly and accidentally. Her father’s opponents were trying to poison him but failed. Esteban suffers terribly from this loss and turns into a greedy, abusive, and violent ranch owner.
He later returns to the city to mourn his dead mother and ends up marrying Clara, who possesses a series of supernatural powers that include premonitions, telequinesis, and being able to talk to the dead.
Tragedies, fortunes, business success, political careers, and green hair and moustaches, all shape this family’s destiny and their members’ fate. Extraordinary things happen to them and spiritual encounters are common situations in this book, the crown jewel of Isabel Allende.
2. Of Love and Shadows (De amor y sombra)
Most of Isabel Allende’s books are full of passion and truthful characters. This particular book is no exception, set in a place where disappearances, arrests, and executions are an everyday event. The novel tells us the story of two characters willing to risk everything for the sake of justice.
Irene, a reporter from a wealthy background, falls in love with Francisco Leal, a young photographer who is secretly a government opponent—in spite of being engaged to a military captain.
They investigate the mysterious case of the miraculous powers of Evangelina Ranquileo, who disappears after the soldiers’ arrival, leaving the two protagonists at the vortex of violence and terror.
This is another must of Isabel Allende books—a historical novel that takes adventure, romance, and drama into a place where anything can happen.
3. Eva Luna
If you like metaphors and reading between the lines, this book is for you. If you are into innocent, female lead characters who lack malice, read Eva Luna and its sequel,The Stories of Eva Luna (Los cuentos de Eva Luna). This girl presents life from the perspective of someone who accepts rough patches and dooming fates with arms wide open, ready to move forward.
The story starts when an Indian man gets bitten by a snake, and the woman who brings him back to life gives birth to a girl named Eva. Eva grows up in the house of an unconventional doctor whose hobby is to mummify corpses. Eva’s mother works as a servant there, but dies when the little girl is six. Her godmother then leases her to many households where she lives different stories that serve as metaphors in the novel.
Eventually, she becomes interleaved with Rolf Carle and his stories of his early years in Nazi Austria, and his adulthood as a filmmaker in South American countries. Find what she has to do with a guerrilla leader, a Madame, and a Turkish merchant in this mesmerizing written work.
4. The Infinite Plan (El plan infinito)
Of Isabel Allende books, this is the first one set in the United States. Read it to get a glimpse of her perspective of the USA.
Greg, a preacher’s son, and his love interest Carmen, start a journey to find their identities. He soon starts to discover the somber side of the world, racial discrimination, social revolutions, and Vietnam. He rises from all of this with the imperative need of becoming powerful and rich—no matter the costs or means. After failing in his personal and love life, while cultivating a self-destructive personality, he realizes he desperately needs to search for his soul.
Why read Paula? Because it is the first nonfiction book by Isabel Allende. All Isabel Allende books are historical fiction up to this point. This deeply personal and beautiful account of the author’s life lets us look into her grieving process over her 28-year-old daughter’s death due to a blood disorder.
A documentation of her family life, the numbing feeling that resulted from her loss, her surreal years in Lebanon, her early career, and first marriage are some of the stories compiled within the pages of this revealing book. You can get to know the figures that inspired her endearing characters, and the pivotal events that made her.
6. Island Beneath the Sea (La isla bajo el mar)
Read this novel to revive the warmth of Magical Realism through a historical sprawling epic.
Follow the story of Tete, a young woman that was born into slavery, and her master. A Frenchman buys Tete in Haiti and uses her until she becomes pregnant with a girl. This complicated relationship eventually moves to New Orleans where she yearns for the freedom that people promised her.
How Is This Beneficial for Your Spanish Knowledge?
Besides the cultivation of the mind through a reading habit, Spanish literature provides real applications of the language in different situations. Reading in Spanish will get you acquainted with descriptive language, idiomatic expressions, fluency and creativity. Using literature as a learning method enables you to ask, investigate, and even criticize in the target language—rather than merely repeat useful phrases.
Use this rich source of original, and real-life inspired material. Seize the opportunity of internalizing Spanish at a higher, more complex level!
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