Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Book Review: The Sum of Our Days, by Isabel Allende

I just finished Isabel Allende's "The Sum of Our Days" (La Suma de los Dias), an autobiographical novel, focusing mostly on the past fifteen or so years of her life in Marin County, California. Since the last thing I read by Isabel was "Eva Luna," many years ago, I was surprised to learn, in a FT interview with Richard Waters, that Isabel has been in California for a while now. I was intrigued enough to buy the book. "The Sum of Our Days" appears to be the continuation of a dialogue with her deceased daughter, Paula, begun in a book of the same name that I have not read.

Since one of the challenges of my life is trying to find a balance between writing and raising four young children, I'm always interested in autobiographical material by authors I like. Mostly I want to know where they get their inspiration and how they find time for their writing. In Isabel's case, it's clear that a lot of this material comes from her own life and the lives of her friends. Some of this drama, you'd be hard pressed to invent, such as the story of her drug-addicted step-daughter's surprise pregnancy, resulting in a delivery in where the the obstetrician has to simultaneously save a premature baby and detox the child, or getting a call during a vacation in India where she learns that her daughter-in-law has run off with her stepson's fiance.

One funny anecdote is her Chilean family's horrified reaction when she uses them for inspiration in her first novel "The House of the Spirits" (her grandmother apparently did dabble in spiritualism; her grandfather was not a rapist and murderer). They only reconciled themselves with the novel when it became a major Hollywood movie, with well-known stars, at which point they decided that Isabel's fictionalized story was their true family history.

She talks frankly about trying the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca to overcome writer's block, her quest to find and vet a future wife for her son, taking the unsuspecting woman with her on a trip to the Amazon, discusses the highs and lows of her marriage and her time in counseling, her failings as a mother-in-law (she finally has to throw away the key to her son and daughter-in-law's house because she is always popping in unannounced), and her unconventional assembled family, her "tribu" (or tribe). Having enjoyed her fiction, it was nice to learn more about this woman who comes across as amazingly cool on a personal level, in spite of...or more likely, because of the self-awareness with which she discusses her own foibles, an attitude that enables her to appreciate and accept other people, despite their imperfections.

She places strong emphasis on family, especially extended family or the self-elected family of truly close life-long friends. Such an outlook no doubt appears claustrophobic and retrograde in contemporary American culture, with its emphasis on the nuclear family and individualism. However, in Isabel's case, she apparently has a magnetic enough personality (and it comes across in her writing) that "the tribu" includes people like her husband's stepson from a former marriage, her former son-in-law (widower of the deceased daughter), who moves from Spain to the US and moves into her old house, five minutes away, with his new wife and their twin daughters...and lots of other interesting characters.

The anecdote that served as a cautionary tale for me was her story of an encounter with a dentist she meets at a cocktail party. When the dentist learns that she writes novels for a living, he replies that he'd like to write a novel when he retires. The rather defensive Isabel responds that she'd like to extract molars when she retires, referring to the fact that she spends ten hours a day sitting down in front of her computer screen agonizing over word choice, and that writing, for most people who do it well, takes a lot of dedication and large chunks of uninterrupted time.

This makes me think of a conversation I had with a good friend over Christmas. She is trying to talk me into reading Malcom Gladwell's new book: "Outliers, The Story of Success." If you any of you have read Malcolm Gladwell, please tell me what you think he's worth. I've only seen an interview of him on the Daily Show--I'm slightly suspicious of fashionable, media-savvy intellectuals, afraid they'll be innately shallow. Supposedly they ought to be suffering and under-appreciated, right?. Well, anyway, my friend was telling me about Malcolm (or whoever else he filched it from)'s 10,000 hour rule where supposedly anybody can get really good at something if they spend 10,000 hours doing it. I'm not completely convinced that is true. Or maybe it's because, by that metric I'm really behind in my writing career, or I've just gotten distracted along the way.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Malcolm, fashionable??? I don't know about that statement, but I highly recommend his book. I loved it! Although, of his three books, I'm a bigger fan of Blink.

Donald said...

Malcolm is an interesting fellow, but originality may not be his best attribute.

The "10,000 hour rule" was originally reported by K. Anders Ericcson as a guide for the amount of "deliberate practice" that separates an expert from just another good performer. Not original Gladwell research, but a rehash of someone's tried and true analysis...for which Malcolm gets perhaps too much credit.

I like Malcolm's work, especially the first one, The Tipping Point. However, if you are at all familiar with the literature of innovation diffusion, intuition (although MG hates that word), and expertise, then his books are irrelevant. If you are not familiar with this material but are interested in it, then his work just might interest you.

Nathalie said...

Anonymous and Donald,
Thanks for the feedback on Malcolm.

I think he's had at least one best-seller? and I hear him referenced a lot in the media, so I'd say he's pretty fashionable.

Donald, my husband said he came across the 10,000 hour rule in a Nature magazine article a while back. I wonder if this wasn't the original K. Anders Ericcson research.

Since I don't read Nature or more erudite works in the sort of broad sociology of ideas field, Malcolm would probably be a good access point for me.

On that note, in popular "sociology of ideas" for lack of a better term literature, I also enjoyed Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, "The Black Swan" about the impact of highly improbable events and Steven Levitt's "Freakonomics," which draws connections between seemingly un-related events, like legalized abortion and the decline in violent crime 20 years later in the US...