From the start, Isabel Allende’s new novel feels like a break from the past, a deliberate distancing from the deep historical context and magical realism that have marked her work and charmed her readers across generations and national borders. Maya’s Notebook is a gritty, violent, cautionary tale set firmly in the present, with a tough-talking teen in the lead role and enough bad guys to fill an Elmore Leonard book.
But even with its relentlessly modern viewpoint, which might disorient some longtime Allende fans, the book offers enough familiar markers to reassure the internationally lauded author’s most faithful followers while also winning her some new converts. The writing is still all Allende: driven by emotion, informed by her own multi-cultural life, framed by her brand of lyrical description. And there’s historical context, too, although it’s less central and more personal than in some of her previous books.
Narrated by troubled 19-year-old Maya, the novel traces the young woman’s descent from an offbeat childhood in a rambling house in Berkeley with her grandparents to a nightmarish life on the Las Vegas streets mixed up with thugs, drugs, prostitution and assassins. The painful and degrading fall is set off by the death of her beloved grandfather — and a reminder of how easy the young and vulnerable can slip over the edge.
Eventually, her grandmother comes to the rescue, a Chilean émigré with a mystical bent who packs Maya off to live with an old friend on a remote island off the coast of Chile. That’s when Maya begins to grow up, figure out what ails her and tackle some of the central mysteries of her life.
Allende, who was born in Peru, raised in Chile and now lives in California, has said she wrote this book with her six grandchildren in mind, realizing she couldn’t protect them from all the evils of the world. And indeed, Maya’s character is written with an undertone of sympathy. She’s an open-hearted mess: angry, impulsive, funny, tumbling from one disastrous situation to another, the hot-headed runaway with scrappy appeal. Watching her character evolve from defiant kid to humbled but clear-eyed young woman is a compelling journey. You want to see her emerge on the other side, older and wiser but still true to herself.
Allende is kind to her readers, starting the story as Maya heads to the island, the grandmotherly rescue already a fait accompli. The flashbacks of drug overdoses, rape and criminality are brutal — they’re conveyed as entries in Maya’s notebook — but readers already know she survived to tell the tale.
That’s not to say there’s no suspense. Maya’s voyage of self-discovery leads to detective work involving her own family. Upping the tension is the fact that Maya is cut off from the world — no email or phone calls — because law enforcement agencies and killers are trying to track her down. Eventually, just as Maya begins to understand her past and adapt to the tiny, slow-paced society of the island, her two worlds collide with potentially catastrophic results.
Allende’s old magic works its way into Maya’s story through her grandmother and the island people. As Maya opens herself to the possibilities of the island, she’s invited to a midnight meeting with a group of women who may or may not be witches. She falls in mind-boggling love, feels herself dying and being reborn. Sees new horizons where once there were none.
And that’s where Allende uses her reliable literary tools to fresh advantage. The magical touches, which could have felt like a retread of previous books, seem new again as they play out through Maya’s eyes.
Some of the earlier criticisms of Allende’s work still apply here. She’s not the most subtle of writers, embracing high drama every time. Love and violence, themes she has embraced before, are once again center stage. But there’s a lot to like here, starting with Maya. She reminds us of the central role that luck or lack of it can play in our lives. And her slow return to a more sure-footed existence shows us that sometimes, we can triumph anyway.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.