By PATRICIA CONOVER
For Montclair Local
Isabel Allende wrote her first novel, the best-seller “The House of the Spirits,” when she was living in exile and her marriage was struggling.
The book, which incorporates magical realism, evolved from a letter she began writing to her grandfather at the end of his life, Allende told a full house at First Congregational Church in Montclair last Wednesday, Jan. 22. The entire book, which sold over 70 million copies, was channeled by her beloved grandmother.
Allende was in town to speak about her latest novel, “A Long Petal of the Sea,” with TV host and author Robyn Moreno.
Allende’s talk was the kickoff event for the Montclair Literary Festival, and a fundraiser for Succeed2gether, an organization working to close the achievement gap for students in Greater Montclair and Essex County. The festival will take place from March 25-29, and includes Nicholas Kristof, Mo Rocca, Madeline Miller and many others.
Allende’s new book, published on Jan. 21, focuses on Victor and Roser, who are escaping Spain after Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda chartered a ship so that 2200 refugees could begin a new life in Chile. The book takes on themes of exile, hope and belonging.
“Necessity,” Allende said, is the thread that has connected her work as a journalist and translator in Chile to her work as an author.
“My father abandoned me when I was 3 years old,” she said. “I lived in the somber house of my grandfather. The house was in mourning during my childhood. Then, my mother married a diplomat and we moved again. I was divorced. My daughter died. I have reinvented myself many times.”
The death of her daughter inspired Allende to write “Paula,” a tribute to her daughter, Paula Frías Allende, in 1995. Her daughter died, after falling into a coma due to complications of porphyria, in 1991 at the age of 29. Allende further honored her daughter by creating a foundation supporting reproductive rights, economic independence and freedom from violence for women and children, the Isabel Allende Foundation. All profits from “Paula” fund the Foundation’s work supporting women’s health and social justice projects.
Succeed2gether president Marcia Marley knew that Allende would provide the perfect blend of optimism and authenticity to launch the Succeed2gether Festival.
And, she said, the crowd demonstrated Montclair’s strong engagement with literature and steadfast support for young people.
“When you buy a ticket to one of these events you help a 6-year-old become a confident and competent reader, a 12-year-old achieve an ‘A’ in Math, or a high school student create a winning college essay,” Marley said.
Next up on the Succeed2gether schedule is a conversation next Thursday, Feb. 6, with author and New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell. The discussion will focus on his book “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know.” Colum McCann will appear on March 12.
More information about Succed2getherevents and about the festival is on the Succeed2gether website.