The Making of a Literary Feminist Icon: A Review of the Bio-pic of Isabel Allende

I will never forget the first time I read a book by Isabel Allende while in high school.  It was The House of Spirits and I was immediately captivated by her words and the magic that came up for me in her storytelling. I had no idea there was a name for this style of writing… magical realism. Add to that some historical fiction and, SWOON, I was hooked. I can say she was my #1 favorite author for a very long time and she’s still up in the top three.

When I heard that a three-part bio pic on her life titled ISABEL was now streaming, I almost fell out.

I always wondered how much of Isabel Allende’s life was mirrored in her stories. I felt goosebumps watching scenes of her finding family secrets in her grandparents basement, and seeing her grandmothers spirit in the same basement where she was raised by a single mom and her loving Tata after her grandmother passed away.

Chilean actor Daniela Ramirez plays the role of Isabel and does a great job humanizing Allende while making us feel the strength of a powerful storyteller and the humanity that is part of a complicated life that involved resisting the patriarch from a young age.

The first episode introduces us to Allende’s childhood. We see that young Isabel was a strong-willed child with a powerful spirit and a strong inner compass, even as she struggles with being abandoned by her father. Her father’s abandonment significantly impacted her relationship with her mother. It also impacted how she responded to power, control, and decision making by men during that time period, as she saw her mom struggle with raising her with no income after her father abandoned the family. She watched her mother reinvent herself, but not without impacting her own sense of self. Young Isabel lived in her storytelling and creativity. We see her creativity unfold in episode one as her writing career takes her to work at a feminist magazine in Santiago, Chile. The next episode takes us through the following chapter in Allende’s life as she flees to Venezuela with her family escaping Pinochet’s dictatorship, though not before helping fellow Chileans escape Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship and coup that killed her uncle, former president Salvador Allende. This episode also shows us what she was going through when she abandoned her children briefly as she follows a lover to Spain, then returns to repair her relationship with her children. The final episode leads up to her daughter Paula’s death, resulting from a genetic kidney disease. I needed tissue for this episode, as the first half of Allende’s life wraps up in this bio pic. I highly recommend this series if you love her work and want more details about the events in her life that made her the fierce independent woman she is today. I equally recommend it if you know nothing about her life and want to watch an on-screen adaptation of a woman who lives on her own terms and has not let society define her by the choices she’s made.

There were many reflections throughout this series that can be discussed at length. A few of the most powerful reflections that stood out to this Allende fan were those of her childhood and how lonely she felt. In one childhood memory her grandfather tells her, “Su mamá no es su papá,” then follows with, “Your mother will never abandon you. nor will I.” Well if that didn’t hit me straight through the heart. She was very resentful when her mother left briefly to spend time with her partner who would eventually become her step-father. Her grandfather was essentially telling her that her mother had not abandoned her, but rather was carving out time to meet her own needs in the way that children could not. It was not lost on me that she did the same thing and left her children briefly as she followed her lover to Spain. We see how she sought to fill that loneliness through choices made, yet these same choices allowed for her to find her way home to (her)self. Returning home, she dives into her writing to process the loss of her beloved grandfather and to repair her relationship with her children. This process that started as a letter to her grandfather resulted in the masterpiece we know as The House of Spirits. Her first book was published at age 40, after countless rejections in Latin America as a female author. She is an incredible role model. She lives her life unapologetically and shows us how to never give up on anything you’re passionate about and to not be afraid to rebuild your life after loss, whether it’s with a partner or alone. Learning more about her personal life through this bio pic and her most recent memoir, The Soul of a Woman, we see the evolution of this fierce feminist and human rights activist. The Isabel Allende Foundation, created in honor of her daughter Paula, offers grants that support access to reproductive rights, opportunities for economic empowerment, and freedom from violence. Isabel Allende is a courageous, brave, bad ass bitch chingona. I am grateful that at age 75 she continues to write and leaves more wisdom for her readers. In many ways Saint Lunita does what Allende models: using our voice to speak on issues that matter and including voices that are not visible in mainstream media. Saint Lunita lends a voice to those choosing life on their own terms by using words to share our stories. Isabel Allende is the definition of the personal is political. Go watch it, now streaming on HBOMax.

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