Masterful storytellers know to hook their audiences quickly, going right to the heart of things. And so goes novelist Isabel Allende (House of the Spirits) in her new memoir, The Sum of Our Days, whose first sentence roundly states: "There is no lack of drama in my life, I have more than enough three-ring-circus material for writing . . ." No paucity indeed; what ensues is an exuberant, unpredictable, melancholic and loving narrative that spans the 13 years after the death of her daughter, Paula. The book was conceived as an intimate letter to Paula, and is largely drawn from the long daily correspondence with Allende's own mother. "I will begin by telling you what has happened since . . . you left us, and will limit myself to the family, which is what interests you," Allende writes.

This story of family and extended family is certain to interest any reader; who doesn't enjoy a good dish of familial drama? The Sum of Our Days, however, may be especially delectable to writers and fans of Allende's fiction, as Allende generously reveals her creative inner world - the genesis of her many books, her fears and superstitions about writing (she must begin a new book only on January 8 of every new year), and the ways in which a diverse, eccentric pack of family, friends and experiences find their ways into her wondrous tales.

Allende does not hold back in recounting her grief over the loss of a daughter, and The Sum of Our Days is tinged with profound sadness in places. It is also a moving, often humorous, recollection not only of family, but also of essential friends, including exotic, warmhearted Tabra and the wittily wise Sisters of Disorder. Finally, this memoir is a lustrous meditation on placing the complexities of love and relationship, spirituality and suffering into a greater context. As Allende writes, "you have to forget facts and concentrate on the truth. . . . Gently, the waters will settle, the mud will sink to the bottom, and there will be transparency."

Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.

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