In the midst of winter, in the midst of their singular struggles, three people are brought together by a car accident during a Brooklyn snowstorm.
In Isabel Allende's "In the Midst of Winter," Richard Bowmaster, a 60-year-old professor, rear-ends a young woman in a Lexus. The woman, Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented Guatemalan worker, takes off in a panic. When she appears at Richard's home that evening and tells him and his tenant, Lucia Maraz, what she has in her trunk, their three lives become "inextricably linked."
Each of Allende's sentences curls into the next like a delicate arabesque. She is most at ease when describing the august romance that blooms between Richard and Lucia. Lucia was "crushed by the weight of the familiar" in her previous life, in Chile. "She missed sex, romance, and love" and "had gotten beyond any enthusiasm for fleeting adventures." Her eye is set on Richard, but thus far he's been cold.
Allende's characters' lives are marked by tragedy — fate seems to have dealt them more than their fair share of darkness. But the book shines when she gives voice to the slow burn of mature love.
Allende's work can rely too heavily on stereotypes, substituting culture as a shorthand for character.
Lucia is "blessed with the stoic character of her people" and grows worried "when no disaster occurred within a given length of time." Evelyn is less a fully developed character than a quivering vessel who imparts a tale of gang violence, human trafficking and illegal entry into the United States to push Richard and Lucia out of their comfort zones and into each other's arms.
Richard fears what he's done so much that "memories … would assail him as soon as he stepped outside his routines." Predictably, he comes to confront this past and lose confidence in "what he thought he knew and in the illusion of being in control." When Evelyn arrives with her mysterious cargo, the three embark on a journey as co-conspirators.
At times it seems the gravity of the plot is a bit lost on Allende and her characters.
Readers who love Allende will find much to enjoy. This is a syntactically beautiful story with the twists and turns of a telenovela, and it has warmth at its center. It is a novel that touches some difficult topics: immigration, murder, spiritual belief, divorce and the death of children. Although she can sometimes take on too much, Allende writes connections well.
Heather Scott Partington is an emerging critic fellow for the National Book Critics Circle.
In the Midst of Winter
By: Isabel Allende.
Publisher: Atria, 342 pages, $28.