Isabel Allende’s “In the Midst of Winter” makes space for kindness in a brutal world

Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Isabel Allende
Photo by Lori Barra

There are many things you could call Isabel Allende, but “at a loss for words” is not one of them.

Since publishing her 1982 bestseller “The House of the Spirits,” renowned for its mix of political themes and magical realism, the savvy storyteller has written almost two dozen novels and nonfiction books that have been translated into more than 30 languages, garnering a truckload of global literary honors and a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom en route.

A U.S. citizen since 1993 — the Chilean native fled her country after Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 military coup — Allende’s personal experiences and observations inform most of her work, including the recently published “In the Midst of Winter,” which she’ll discuss with LA Times books editor Carolyn Kellogg on Friday at the Skirball Cultural Center.

With its wrenching scenes of gang violence and human trafficking, “In the Midst of Winter” is pointedly relevant to headline issues, but it’s Allende’s characters who make the story compelling. If undocumented Guatemalan immigrant Evelyn Ortega seems impossibly childlike, her motivations are nonetheless painfully relatable; while sensual, witty professor and creative cook Lucia Maraz proves an altogether winning alter ego for Allende.

Maraz’s blossoming romance with fellow sixtysomething scholar Richard Bowmaster, a rigid academic prone to panic attacks and haunting nightmares, provides humorous balance to the brutality propelling the plot. Hope is not easily found, but it exists — as does passion, even in the AARP years — and there is room in the world for respect and kindness. That message may resemble what Allende has espoused in TED talks, but these days it’s a reminder worth hearing in any context.

— Bliss Bowen

Isabel Allende discusses “In the Midst of Winter” at Skirball Cultural Center (2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Brentwood), at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1. Tickets are $28, including one pre-signed book. Call (310) 440-4500 or visit skirball.org.

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