I think I will look back on the books I’ve read in the past six months and the main thing I’ll remember is this: bad things happen to teenagers who end up in Las Vegas. Very. Bad. Things. Remember Theo Decker in The Goldfinch? He leaves New York City a nice kid who loves his mom, and after a few months in Vegas he’s an alcoholic degenerate. Isabel Allende’s protagonist does Donna Tartt’s one better: when she winds up in Vegas after fleeing a reform school in Oregon she ends up homeless in Vegas, trading herself for some crack or heroin or whatever she can get. Think this sounds like quite a departure for the wonderful Chilean woman who wrote one of my most favoritest books of all time (that’d be The House of the Spirits)? Yeah, I think so too.
I have slightly more than a hundred pages to go in Maya’s Notebook. It’s been going really quickly, and I’ve been enjoying it, despite the bizarre Las Vegas interlude in which I find myself currently. I don’t want to talk too much since I’m so close to the end, but I wanted to at least get my pithy Las Vegas paragraph posted today. (I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize that comparison since last night.) It always confuses me when Allende does a novel with a contemporary setting. I tend to enjoy her historical fiction much more; not that her contemporary novels are bad; I just find her historical ones so much better. Our narrator here is Maya Vidal, a nineteen to twenty-year-old girl who starts off in Berkeley, California, living with her grandparents. Her parents essentially dumped her with her grandparents when she was a baby. Her grandmother, or Nini, is a transplant from Chile, and her grandfather, or Popo, is her second husband, an astronomer. Maya’s Popo dies when Maya is fifteen, and it’s at that point that her life “goes off the rails,” as she says several times. She goes from a happy kid to one who drinks and does drugs and winds up in a reform school. She runs from there after a couple of years and hitches a ride with a trucker, who rapes her, and drops her off in Vegas. She takes up with a drug dealer, who gets killed by his own bodyguards, and that’s when she turns into a literal crack whore. Somehow her Nini finds her, and she gets shipped off to a small island off the coast of mainland Chile, called Chiloé, to stay with an old man named Manuel, an old friend of her grandmother’s.
The bulk of the novel is about what happens after all the Vegas drama, when she’s in Chiloé, which is why it’s not giving away much of the plot to mention Maya’s life in Vegas. Her time in Chiloé is much more peaceful than Vegas, and much more in keeping with the magical realism of Allende’s traditional works, though the magic here is limited to Manuel’s research on the mythology of Chiloé, though one of the ladies on the island, Blanca Schenke, does belong to a witch coven, and Maya joins, too. My primary problem with this book is the ease with which Maya seems to become an addict, then just stop being one, despite the occasional talk of how she’s always going to be an addict, and how she needs to keep away from alcohol, because that’s her gateway drug. But she generally just seems okay. Granted, this is her version of events and she admits that she may not be the most reliable narrator: “It’s complicated to write about my life, because I don’t know how much I actually remember and how much is a product of my imagination; the bare truth can be tedious and so, without even noticing, I change or exaggerate it, but I intend to correct this defect and lie as little as possible in the future (4).” So maybe there’s more going on in her head as far as her struggle with addiction than she lets on. I’ll assume that’s the case, because I really do hate to find fault with anything Allende writes.
I forgot to talk about how this book came into my life! Crap. Stupid Vegas is the devil for teenagers digression at the beginning of this post. Anyway. This book was released in 2011 in Spanish, but it took two years to get an English translation published, which surprised me a lot during that time because usually Allende’s English translations come out a lot faster than that. I am still curious as to why it took so long. It goes without saying that I got this book in hardcover, as soon as it came out in April 2013, and then it ended up sitting for a heck of a lot longer than I was planning on. I chose this book when I did because of my New Year’s resolution to plow through my hardcovers this year. I’m definitely enjoying it; Maya bounces back and forth from her past history to her “present” in Chiloé, and the past history is scandalous and suspenseful and exciting. The Chiloé sections are much more classic Allende: the meandering pace and South American setting and the eccentric, amusing, endearing characters. I suspect many folks will find the drug addict on the streets section tedious and/or disturbing; in fact, I was as much repulsed as I was compelled to keep reading last night.
I should finish this one pretty soon and will get some final thoughts together for you guys later this week.