BookBrowse Reviews In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

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In the Midst of Winter

by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende X
In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2018, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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A sweeping novel about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story, journeying from present-day Brooklyn, to Guatemala in the recent past, to 1970s Chile and Brazil.

When you are familiar with an author, picking up their new book comes with many expectations – you hope to find the same flow and style, similar themes, and characters that remind you of your old favorites. Isabel Allende is a seasoned author and has a rich collection of works on which to build those expectations. Although In the Midst of Winter is a charming tale, it does not hit, unfortunately, quite the same highs as Allende's earlier works.

Set in present-day Brooklyn, the story follows an unexpected trio – Richard, an aging academic determined to avoid personal entanglements; Lucia, a vibrant émigré from Chile on a quest to live her life to the fullest; and Evelyn, a young, undocumented immigrant from Guatemala with a job that has proven to be more dangerous than she imagined. Finding themselves irrevocably linked by an act of violence, Richard and Lucia work to help Evelyn escape unscathed. Over the course of a tumultuous weekend in January, the three recount their tragic histories and create solace where before there was only fear and isolation.

In many ways, the story is a pleasant surprise. The characters are engaging, their dialogue is funny and modern; there is a sense that they really could be living in a Brooklyn brownstone. It is also refreshing to find a not-so-young couple going through the ups and downs of a budding romance – Richard and Lucia both come with a great deal of baggage and experience, yet more often than not their interactions are timid, and their flirtation is subtle and gentle; they are like shy teenagers finding their confidence.

Sharply juxtaposing this sweet, slowly developing relationship are the stories of extreme violence and pain that each character, in turn, unfolds. Lucia and Evelyn both paint a grim picture of developing Latin American nations where nothing is as it seems – what may look like wealth is a gilded cover for shambling poverty, what looks like democracy hides severe corruption and unspeakable cruelty. Lucia tells Chile's history and Evelyn describes Guatemala's present, yet the patterns are the same, the dangers are palpable, and the reality of the situation is brought into sharp focus.

Unfortunately, not everything in In the Midst of Winter is as effortlessly portrayed as the three protagonists and their memories.

While the story is well fleshed out, the plot device used to tell it is a bit awkward – the characters spend three days together while they slowly tell pieces of their stories. This feels incredibly forced when the characters are all in the same place the entire time. Why, for example, would Lucia only recount ten years of her life and then stop for a day? Obviously, this is done for the purpose of pacing, but the strongest writing artfully hides these kinds of "seams."

Another instance of bumpy presentation can be found in Allende's frequently preachy tone. You can find this voice in inessential "straw" characters like Father Benito and a volunteering doctor, Nuria, both of whom spout statistics as readily and plentifully as a Wikipedia page. Clearly, the topics addressed in Evelyn and Lucia's stories are despicable; clearly they warrant outrage; however since this is a novel and not a political manifesto, these ideas would have hit harder if they were disguised with a bit more ingenuity.

Unlike Allende's previous works, this is not a story of magic realism or a glittering multi-generational saga. In the Midst of Winter has a much smaller scope and a much simpler plot line. Although they are interesting, the characters are uncomplicated; each has a maximum of two main objectives at a time. This is a classic "beach" read, despite being set in January. Read it to get swept away for a few hours, read it to learn something about Latin American history, for a touch of romance and intrigue, or maybe to learn a bit about what makes Isabel Allende tick.

Reviewed by Natalie Vaynberg

This review was originally published in November 2017, and has been updated for the September 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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