Isabel Allende has written 22 novels that have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. Her latest, Más allá del invierno, was released by Vintage Español in June and by Atria in English as In the Midst of Winter on October 31.
The Chilean author notes in the book’s acknowledgements that the idea for this novel originated during a Christmas conversation in Brooklyn two years ago. Relatives and friends chimed in on what she should write about on January 8, the date on which she traditionally begins writing her books. That is not the way she usually operates, Allende, 75, tells PW. “People are always suggesting things, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to write them. You use six out of 100 things you hear.” However, she adds, “I’m always open to what people have to say. That’s where all my material comes from. It has happened to me in a restaurant, for example, that I suddenly catch something that is being said at another table nearby, and I write it down on a napkin, thinking, ‘I may use this someday.’ My ear is always ready, and sometimes it works. It really works!”
An energetic mix of romantic adventure, crime story, and sober exposé on political violence in Latin America, Más allá del invierno revolves around the unlikely pairing of three disparate characters huddling in a Brooklyn brownstone during a harsh blizzard: Lucía Maraz, 62, a Chilean academic and cancer survivor who recently had a messy divorce; her boss, Richard Bowmaster, 60, a human rights scholar who lives above her and has been battling alcoholism and depression for years; and Evelyn Ortega, a young, shy undocumented immigrant who has moved into the brownstone.
Things are set in motion when Evelyn discovers a dead body in the trunk of the car she’s borrowed from her employer. The three set out to dispose of the body and save Evelyn from having legal troubles that could result in her deportation. Their three-day journey in the blizzard uncovers a human-trafficking ring—and rekindles the hearts of Lucía and Richard.
Allende says the first thing the family meeting decided about the novel was to include the old Brooklyn house where they were staying, which had a mafia-related backstory. Her daughter-in-law, who works in Allende’s foundation that has assisted many Central American child migrants, suggested the character of Evelyn. “That was before Trump [became the Republican nominee],” the 2014 Medal of Freedom winner says.
In writing about Evelyn, who escaped her native Guatemala after being raped and losing a brother to gang violence, Allende says she had one specific person in mind, but could not write her whole story. “Sometimes you can’t explain the worse things because [readers] don’t believe them. A novel must be credible, and real life is often incredible,” she says. “The sheer brutality, the cruelty, the horror that goes on with those kids, I couldn’t go into that.”
The character of Lucía offers a different view of the experience of Latin Americans in the U.S., as she is a professional teaching in New York. However, like Evelyn, Lucía also carries the memory of her country’s upheavals, as she was forced to flee Chile in the aftermath of the 1973 military coup and had a “disappeared” brother. Allende, who is a close cousin of President Salvador Allende, who was overthrown and died during the coup, has written about that day, starting with her groundbreaking debut La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits, 1982).
In Allende’s new book, a chilling detail stands out: Chilean television broadcast cartoons all day. “You have to have lived through it to remember the brutal contrast between how they detained people on the street, how they burned books in bonfires, took people away in trucks, the national stadium was turned into a concentration and torture camp… and alongside that you had the cartoons on TV,” Allende says.
The abundance of tragic events in the novel is balanced with truly humorous moments—for example, the three characters initially bond over a marijuana cookie. The author points out that this is not a literary device. “That’s just how life is,” she says. “Those are not tricks to lighten the reader’s burden. I feel that when I tell a story, I tell it the way life happens. And life happens with tragedy and humor. Everything has its comedic part.”
Allende says she has toyed with the idea of romance in old age for a long time, as she did with her previous novel, El amante japonés (The Japanese Lover). However, when she tried to put her ideas on paper, nothing seemed to work. That is until Jan. 22, 2016, when a blizzard of historic proportions paralyzed the city. “In one of those chances in which the universe sends you messages,” she recalls coming upon an Albert Camus quote: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
“That’s what I needed,” she says, seeing the storm as a metaphor for what is going on in the characters’ lives. “They are going through a long winter in their lives, but all of us have within us the possibility of an invincible summer. So we’re going to produce a situation in which they will have to open their hearts, run risks, and find this summer.”
As she kept writing, more things happened in her life that affected the novel. For example, she fell in love again—with Roger Cukras, a New York lawyer and fan of her books—after having divorced her husband of 28 years. Her new romance inspired a wistful thought by Lucía: “Love always came to me halfway.”
“One of the things he brought up in me is this feeling of never having loved so much, or so completely,” says Allende, adding that the one exception may have been her first husband, although he was immature. “Look, I was 19 and he was five years older, but it was as if he was five years younger!”
Carlos Rodríguez-Martorell is a New York–based journalist and book reviewer.