For our last reading group meeting, we chose Isabel Allende’s recent novel, Largo Pétalo de Mar (in English, A Long Petal of the Sea). I knew very little about it before I started reading – only that the main characters were among the many Spanish Republicans driven to seek exile in France towards the end of the Civil War when defeat by Franco looked inevitable, and that the setting later moved to Chile where they found refuge and rebuilt their lives. I knew also that the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda played a part in the story.
I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to such a renowned writer as Isabel Allende, but as I read, I was amazed time and again by the similarities with my own novel, The Red Gene. Both books were published in the same month, April 2019; there was no question of one influencing the other. So it seemed to me almost uncanny how much the two novels had in common. Hundreds of novels have been written about the Spanish Civil War. I’ve read a few of them, both before and after writing my own, but none bore any resemblance to The Red Gene in terms of plot or structure, only in general background. Largo Pétalo de Mar did. Several members of our reading group had already remarked on it independently before we met to discuss the book.
I can’t go into too much detail without giving away spoilers, only to say that both novels were partly set in the Spanish Civil War; both had long time-frames spanning three generations of two contrasting families – one on the Republican side, the other of rich, right-wing landowners; both combined the personal and political in a similar way with a love story at the centre. In both books, a baby girl was stolen and given away to a ‘good’ Catholic family while her mother was told the baby had died. In each case, many decades passed before the crime was discovered and some kind of reunion became possible. The main protagonist in my novel was a nurse, in Allende’s a doctor. In addition to these general resemblances, one or two scenes had quite remarkable parallels. Some striking coincidences can be found even in the detail. Allende’s musical main character had the name of Roser, while mine, also musical, was Rose.
Opinions of the book in our group varied, as they always do, but I’m a big fan of Allende and I loved this one as much as any. It lacks the magic realism of some of her earlier novels, having more in common perhaps with Hija de la Fortuna/Daughter of Fortune and Retrato en Sepia/Portrait in Sepia. She is a wonderful storyteller and I found this new novel easy to read, hard to put down. War, exile and belonging are important themes, along with love, destiny and how the course of our lives is often determined by political events beyond our control. The history and politics are seamlessly interwoven with the lives and loves of her fictional characters so that it never feels heavy. I highly recommend it and would welcome any comments from those who have also read The Red Gene.