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The Soul of a Woman by Isabel Allende: a very poor offering

An incomprehensibly weak collection of writings by an author capable of so much better

The Soul of a Woman
Author: Isabel Allende
ISBN-13: 978-1526630810
Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus
Guideline Price: £14.99

The Soul of a Woman is billed as “The collected wisdom of literary legend Isabel Allende – a meditation on power, feminism and what it means to be a woman”. Allende is, according to her biographical note, “one of the most widely read authors in the world,” a woman who has “authored twenty-six bestselling books that have been translated into more than forty-two languages and sold more than seventy-four million copies”. She has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

These are eye-watering achievements, and they belong to a woman more capable, more exceptional, than the series of trivialities, unsubstantiated claims and half-baked ideas making up The Soul of a Woman would suggest.

My strongest impression upon reading it has been one of distaste, not for Allende but for her publishers, who, she says herself within the text, “don’t try to influence my work”. Presumably they know that no matter what she produces, it will sell more than enough to justify the printing and distribution. Yet it seems lacking the requisite respect with which an artist like Allende ought to be treated to allow such a book to see the light of day.

One feels, reading it, that someone should have been looking out for her, editing her, and ensuring that rushed, weak contributions to her oeuvre like this are not released into the public domain.

So shocked was I to read this almost absurdly poor offering by such a renowned literary figure that I immediately went back and read her first, perhaps most acclaimed novel, The House of the Spirits, as well as an earlier nonfiction offering, My Invented Country. Both remain captivating: gorgeously, even lusciously written, they provide clear proof of the deservedness of her reputation. They made me want to read more of her, but also made The Soul of a Woman appear all the more incomprehensibly weak in comparison.

Perhaps if this was a reader’s first introduction to feminism as a concept, it would be informative. Though even then they would be forced to contend with interpreting vague, airy statements such as: “And what is my definition of feminism? It is not what we have between our legs but what we have between our ears.” So, a brain?

Sometimes Allende ... reverts to old-fashioned, winking 'men are from Mars' tropes

A few pages later, Allende claims that “It could be argued that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the most remarkable [revolution of the 20th century], but the feminist revolution has been deeper and more lasting: It affects half of all humankind.” Yet, surely, feminism, properly understood and applied, affects all of humankind, not only the female half – that is, if gender can even be divided into such simple, binary categories in the 21st century, which it cannot. (Allende sometimes alludes to the higher complexity required in our understanding of gender; other times she forgets and reverts to old-fashioned, winking “men are from Mars” tropes.)

Later she writes “Now it’s been proven that the happiest people are married men and single women.” Has it? By whom? Which study is that? And how did they define or quantify happiness? Further along, she opens a paragraph with “The poet and activist Sylvia Plath” and later attributes a quote that originates with Allen Saunders to John Lennon.

The Soul of a Woman has been written with extreme self-assurance

There are, as is inevitable with a writer of Allende’s abilities, fleeting moments of brilliance and a born storyteller’s flair for detail. She’s insightful when talking about society’s attitude to old age and the pressing need for euthanasia. Beyond that, it is difficult to find much positive to say.

She seems very happy with her third husband, Roger. She frequently mentions her sex life and current sexual requirements (dim light, marijuana). Her topics veer discordantly between still being able to roll on the floor with her dogs; Sophia Loren’s figure; and the murder rate of women in Mexico. She lamely misquotes an overused joke from last year: “I should be writing a novel inspired by García Márquez: Love in the Time of Pandemic,” which ought, of course, to have ended with “Corona”, not “Pandemic”. Okay, writers make mistakes, but where were her editors?

The Soul of a Woman has been written with extreme self-assurance, resulting in a text redolent more of an indulgent chat between an older lady and her grandchild than the “collected wisdom” promised. Allende herself writes that “It is not true that as we age we become wiser, quite the opposite; usually old people are a little mad.” Had this book provided a little more wisdom, or even madness, it may have resulted in a more worthwhile read.