I find it a little hard to believe I’ve read as little Isabel Allende as I have. You will recall that I loved Ines of my Soul as an audiobook; and I recall reading Daughter of Fortune at some point in the more distant (pre-blog) past, although I think I loved it less. Is that really all??
The music of her language reminds me of Sandra Cisneros. As soon as I began this audiobook, immediately following the disappointment of The Aviator’s Wife, I was soothed and grateful to be lulled by such lovely descriptive language (and read beautifully by narrator Maria Cabezas). The rhythm of that language is a central part of the attraction of this novel, although of course there’s more to it than that.
Maya’s Notebook is ostensibly the journal of young Maya Vidal, who turns 20 during the span of this story. That framing element of the journal is rarely referred to, but it does allow the narrative to jump back and forth in time. When the book opens, Maya is traveling from Berkeley, California to the small Chilean island of Chiloé, apparently on the run from an unlikely motley crew of threats including the mob, the Las Vegas police, and the FBI. We follow Maya as she adjusts to her new island home while also flashing back (via her journal) to the events that led her there.
Maya’s Danish mother abandoned her just weeks after birth; her Chilean father works as a pilot and is therefore scarce; but her Chilean grandmother (Nini) and African-American step-grandfather (Popo) are deeply involved, devoted parental figures, so she doesn’t suffer as an abandoned child might. In fact, she has a very happy childhood, until a sudden tragedy occurs when she is in her teens, and Maya rebels violently. I’ll refer vaguely to drugs, sex, crime, organized crime, and… Nini sends her off to Chiloé, where Nini has an old acquaintance who will take Maya in. Despite her storied past, then-19-year-old Maya adjusts well to the very foreign setting of a tiny island stuck in time. Her relationship with her new guardian, Manuel Arias, also develops nicely. These easy conquests are the first of the unrealistic touches that gave me pause.
The parts of Maya’s story that take place on Chiloé are deeply enjoyable, beautiful, and exotic enough to be pleasing and to suspend my disbelief – to quote a review in The New Republic, right to the point: “readers, confronted by fiction set in remote places and eras, are likely to suspend more disbelief than usual.” (I don’t know if it would really be this easy for Maya to win over her new neighbors. Despite being half-Chilean, she has her Danish mother’s coloring and goes locally by “Gringita.” And coloring aside, she is very different culturally from the locals; her easy transition felt very… convenient.) But the street life in Berkeley and (especially) Las Vegas increasingly reminded me of Go Ask Alice, in being simultaneously superlative in its ugliness, and cursory. It didn’t feel real, and Maya’s descent from golden child (literally), well-loved and privileged, to gutter junkie, felt even more cartoonish. This was the chief flaw of Maya’s Notebook. I also feel compelled to point out that even a woman who has played soccer since she was a little girl is unlikely to break a big, strong man’s femur with a well-placed kick.
These flaws were easy to put aside, though. This story made me laugh and cry, I loved Chiloé and its colorful people very much, and Allende’s lyricism is exemplary. There are hints of magical realism. All in all, I thought the New Republic review linked to above was a bit harsh; or maybe it’s just that it picks Maya’s Notebook apart from a standpoint of craft, even literary criticism, where I’m more interested in discussing how enjoyable I found it. I found it flawed, but enjoyable, and I will definitely be back for more.
Maria Cabezas’s reading was beautiful and just what this story deserved. I would like to say something about the translation from Spanish to English being lovely as well, but I am confused: packaging on every audio edition I can find gives translation credit to Anne McLean, but the audio that played in my ear credits Allende herself. Whoever it was, it was clearly outstanding.
Despite some faults, I am pleased.
Rating: 7 photographs.
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