The author of “In the Midst of Winter” — which involves harrowing tribulation, diverting escapade and a sexy love story — will appear Nov. 28 at Benaroya Hall.
“In the Midst of Winter”
by Isabel Allende
Atria, 342 pp., $28
There’s a lot to like in Isabel Allende’s latest novel, “In the Midst of Winter,” a moving tale of the desperate search for asylum from violent unrest and political oppression, and the refuge of another’s arms in later life, improbably tied together by a criminal caper. This combination of bitter, savory and sweet results in a satisfying literary salmagundi that delves into serious and timely topics without taking itself too seriously.
It all begins with a fender bender during a blizzard. Shaken from his cautious, carefully regimented life and lured onto the icy streets of Brooklyn due to a feline emergency, NYU professor Richard Bowmaster is understandably distracted when he rear-ends a Lexus, popping open the trunk. The panicked response and abrupt departure of the young Latina at the wheel leaves him flummoxed. When the same woman later shows up at his door stammering and shaking with fright, Richard calls his tenant and sometime colleague Lucia Maraz to help him get to the bottom of things.
As the storm rages outside, and with the gentle prompting of some pot brownies, the trio begins to open up and share their histories. We learn of tragic circumstances in each of their pasts, and of the physical and psychological scars that they carry with them.
The author of “In the Midst of Winter” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, at Benaroya Hall, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, 200 University St., Seattle; tickets start at $35 (206-621-2230 or lectures.org).
The driver turns out to be an undocumented worker named Evelyn Ortega, who fled Guatemala after her brothers were murdered and she was brutalized and raped by the narco gang MS-13. Lucia helps to gain Evelyn’s confidence by sharing her own tale of exile from Chile after the devastating military coup of 1973, a story that somewhat parallels Allende’s own. The son of Jews who fled the Holocaust, Richard’s wounds are buried deeper, but they gradually surface over the next few days as the trio is thrust together by a curious twist of fate.
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As it turns out, Evelyn’s terror is not just that of any refugee in an increasingly xenophobic America. The Lexus belongs to her boss, Frank Leroy, and there is a frozen corpse in the trunk. So ensues a madcap misadventure that leads our three lost souls into the wilds of upstate New York in hopes of protecting Evelyn, getting rid of the body and possibly avenging a murder by a man who turns out to be engaged in human trafficking. Along the way, the spirited and resilient Lucia thaws Richard’s frozen heart, kindling a mellow yet sensual romance.
There are readers for whom the tonal shifts between harrowing tribulation, diverting escapade and sexy love story may seem jarring, just as one might be surprised by the way in which Shakespeare juxtaposes bloody tragedy, irreverent clowning and tender romance in such late plays as “A Winter’s Tale.” While not a work of magical realism per se, Allende’s 19th novel forthrightly embraces both harsh realities and whimsy, pleasure and pain in this buoyant adventure, a heartfelt story of resilience and respect that seems just the thing to help us through these darkest of days in our land of exiles.