FICTION: A Long Petal of the Sea (2019)

Isabel Allende’s 2019 novel A Long Petal of the Sea (originally, Largo Pétalo de Mar) follows two Catalonian refugees from the Spanish Civil War as they marry for convenience in order to secure priority immigration to Chile.  Although it turns out, after some years, that they have traded the dictatorship of Franco for the dictatorship of Pinochet, they surprise themselves by eventually falling in love with each other and by eventually coming to think of Chile as their real homeland.

A few chapters in, I stared openmouthed as I saw my husband’s and son’s last name on the page.  Del Solar is such a rare Latin American surname that most del Solars are related and there’s a del Solar genealogist, so it was wild that Allende had picked this name for several of her major characters.  Better yet, for me, the del Solar subplot was the most poignant and satisfying story arc in the book.

Also close to home:  resonances between the way Allende describes the fall of Barcelona in 1939, and the way I’ve seen the fall of Saigon described, when my parents escaped Vietnam in April 1975.  Our protagonist’s father foresees how brutal the postwar regime will be and insists that his family leave the country.  But here is where the parallels end:  when France finds “almost half a million Spaniards, in the last stages of confusion, terror, and misery, clamoring at the border,” their astonishingly cruel response is to arrest the Spanish refugees and detain them in camps on the French beach, exposed to the elements, without clean water, in such wretched conditions that nine of every ten children die. This actually happened in real life, and this sort of historical research makes the novel all the more powerful.

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