I picked up this book, the latest from the prolific Chilean author Isabel Allende, because I absolutely adored her last book, The Japanese Lover. It was one of the most enjoyable novels I’ve read in the last two years, and I still highly recommend it. When I first read the book jacket on In the Midst of Winter, I wasn’t sure if I would like it. To be completely honest, I purchased it because my local bookstore had signed copies, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have an Allende-signed book, so I decided to give it a read. There were aspects that I enjoyed, and some that I didn’t.
The synopsis on Amazon uses the word “sweeping” to describe this novel. Sweeping is also one of the adjectives used to describe The Japanese Lover in its Amazon synopsis. When I see this word, I assume that the book’s characters are going to travel to a variety of places, perhaps across different time periods, accumulating experiences that inform the way they approach life in the novel’s present. This does accurately describe both The Japanese Lover and In the Midst of Winter, but I think the former is much more successful than the latter, because its flashbacks and travels through time are focused around one character, instead of multiple characters having disparate experiences.
In the Midst of Winter has three main characters: Lucia Maraz, a 62-year-old Chilean scholar, Richard Bowmaster, a 60-year-old NYU professor renting the basement apartment of his Brooklyn townhome to Lucia, and Evelyn Ortega, a young immigrant from Guatemala. These characters come together essentially for the first time at the beginning of the book; Evelyn shows up on Richard’s doorstep after the two get into a fender bender in the middle of a snowstorm and Richard elicits Lucia’s help, even though the two barely interact. For this reason, the flashbacks throughout the story take us to their individual pasts, which makes the book feel very segmented and lacking in unity. If I counted the number of pages in the book devoted to the past and the number devoted to the narrative of the present, I would guess it would be around 65% in the past and 35% in the present. This breakdown was a little lopsided for me, particularly because the idea of putting these three people together in an extreme situation was something I found compelling. But I don’t think we spent enough time with it; there were various times when I found myself looking at how far into the book I was and wondering how I had read 200 pages and so little had happened in the novel’s present.
We as readers get the life stories of the three characters because they are all holed up together, so they decide to tell each other their life stories. I found this vehicle a bit lazy and unbelievable; there are plenty of other ways to pass time with strangers, some of which I would probably go to before pouring out all the tragedies in my past. Indeed, these characters’ pasts are incredibly tragic, and there’s a degree of dreariness and sadness that overhangs much of the book, even as Allende is constantly trying to infuse it with optimism for the future. There were also a few verbal exchanges that I found a bit clunky and that didn’t sound to me like the way that people actually talk, though I wonder if this could be attributed more to the translation. Perhaps I’ll have to read her next book in Spanish to find out!
As far as the characters go, I enjoyed Lucia the most. I appreciated her headstrong attitude and her approach to life, though I thought her strength was a bit undercut by some of the experiences in her past. I would have liked to meet her daughter, Daniela, in the novel’s present, though the book probably would have had to be twice as long. The woman who raised Evelyn, her grandmother Concepcion, was a character I recognized and appreciated—the old woman perfectly content with her poverty-stricken existence, doing her best to protect her grandchildren from the dangers they face. Something else I think is important to note is that through most of her story, Evelyn barely speaks. I know that speaking isn’t the only form of communication, but when you are reading about, or witnessing, a girl essentially just witnessing her own life, it makes it very hard to relate to.
There was a too lengthy section in the final third of the book focusing on the family Evelyn worked for; at that point, I wanted more of the central journey and frankly didn’t care about these additional people at that point. I thought the overarching theme of the book, that it is during our darkest times that we find our way forward into the light, was a strong one, and I did get the feeling that Lucia and Richard were finding their way forward at the end. However, it didn’t feel to me like the situation in the book’s present was the darkest time in any of the characters’ lives. Instead, it felt like they had all overcome tragedy in their past and reached a place of relative comfort and contentment, and this unfortunate and unique situation merely forced them to reevaluate that and realize that they had the opportunity to achieve true happiness. But did they? To tell you the truth, I’m still not really sure.
If you’re a fan of Allende and appreciate the stories she tells and the people she gives voices to, I’m sure you will enjoy this novel. But if you don’t have any prior connection to her, I would probably pass.