The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

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The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sharon Hall
Reviewed by Sharon Hall
Summary: Allende’s entertaining memoir is based on her journals and daily correspondence with her mother in Chile. In the form of a conversation with her dead daughter, Allende chronicles the extraordinary lives of her children, step-children, friends and a whole host of other characters in New Age California.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 978-0007269495

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This volume of Isabel Allende's memoirs focuses on the Chilean novelist's life in the US, where she has lived for over 25 years. It follows on from The House of the Spirits and My Invented Country about her life in Chile where she lived until Pinochet's military coup and, most notably, Paula, a family history written at the bedside of her daughter while she lay in a coma, eventually dying of the inherited condition porphyria.

In The Sum of the Days, Allende picks up on her life in California after Paula's death in 1992. It is based on her journals and daily correspondence with her mother in Chile and is largely in the form of a conversation with Paula about the highs and lows of the extended family. Allende is surrounded by a "tribe" - her second husband Willie Gordon and his family, her own children and grandchildren, friends acting as adopted aunts, uncles and cousins, friends, and a women's self-help group, The Sisters of Perpetual Disorder.

There is much to tell Paula about this extraordinary tribe. Allende explains how she met and married Gordon, her strong desire to draw the family round her in California, her writing and travelling, and the grief she and the family are still experiencing. Running through the tales of family life, there is anguish about the circumstances surrounding Paula's death, how the family remembers her, and the effect of the publication of the book about Paula.

Allende's memoir embraces the New Age lifestyle of California, with Zen, prayer circles, I Ching, psychics, therapists and astrologers. This certainly suits her magical realism style of novel writing, with its focus on the dreamworld and on the storytelling tradition. California also wouldn’t be California without some mention of celebrities, albeit thankfully brief. The film of The House of Spirits, made a few years earlier, brings her into contact with film stars, although some not that "starry". She memorably describes Jeremy Irons as looking as if he could have been a likeable taxi driver in the suburbs of London.

With forays into a friend's plastic surgery, details of arguments with her husband, and an large, unlikely cast with more than their fair share of drama and emotional crises, the memoir can sound like an upmarket soap opera. She certainly has a lot of material to work with, including a daughter-in-law who has a fling with Paula's widower and then decides to move in with her stepbrother's girlfriend. A sadder tale is of Willie's troubled daughter, Jennifer, who is a drug addict. She has a child who is adopted (by friends of Allende's – a lesbian couple consisting of a Buddhist nun and a physician). Eventually, Jennifer disappears, and is presumed dead. If all of this wasn't enough, Allende takes her mother on a hunt for pornography in San Francisco's bookshops and sets out to find a new girlfriend for her son, during which adventure Allende acknowledges that she is a mother-in-law to be reckoned with. Luckily for all, the window cleaner is a qualified psychiatrist.

It can be a bit breathless: there are times when you long for the tribe to have a normal day. It's also a bit formless and episodic at times, and some of the tales are so extraordinary you have to remind yourself that this is about real people. However, she writes warmly and entertainingly and it is an interesting read, as you go up and down with the family's emotional and other crises.

Readers of Allende's other volumes of memoir will no doubt want to read this, as perhaps will readers of her novels.

For readers who like to penetrate the tangled web of families, albeit in a very different time and place, The Sunlight on the Garden: A Family in Love, War and Madness by Elizabeth Speller may prove an interesting read.

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