Child of Happenstance

Isabel Allende was sitting in a diner, mulling over her book Daughter of Fortune when she spotted the novel's main character, Eliza, pouring coffee. When the waitress approached, the author blurted, "You're so beautiful, you must be Chilean!" Actually, the young woman's porcelain skin and oval eyes were due to her German-Japanese background, but that didn't matter. Allende coaxed the waitress into posing for a portrait in period costume, then perched the photo on her desk. The stony gaze of her "Eliza" became an editor of sorts. If Allende didn't see it in Eliza's eyes, it didn't go in the book.

Chance encounters are everyday occurrences for Allende, both on and off the pages of her novels. In the last installment of the "Unique Lives & Experiences: North America's Foremost Women's Lecture Series," Allende will discuss the importance of serendipity in her work.

Allende's first novel, The House of the Spirits, brought her international literary acclaim, but it wasn't until the book became a movie starring Glenn Close and Meryl Streep in 1994 that the author's magical feminist writing won a mainstream American audience. The book is based on Allende's unexpected exile from her native Chile after her uncle, former Chilean president Salvador Allende, was assassinated during a right-wing military coup. Like the rest of her family, Allende inherited her uncle's political enemies and was forced to flee the country with her husband and two small children. Overnight, she went from being an upper-class wife and mother with a successful journalism career to being an unemployed social outcast. Unable to find work as a reporter, Allende turned to fiction.

Four novels quickly followed, and Allende was working on a fifth when her daughter became ill and died. Again Allende poured the pain of her personal misfortune into her writing. The resulting Paula is a collection of family stories she had meant to share with her daughter but instead shared with us. Chance. Encounters. Allende knows them well.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez