If you’re a keen reader, you’ve probably heard of Chilean American author Isabel Allende, and may have read one of her 20+ books of fiction and non-fiction.
One of Latin America’s most famous living writers, she primarily writes in Spanish. But her work has been translated into English (and many other languages) and adapted for the big screen, too, so it’s accessible to readers and viewers beyond her homeland.
All About Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende Llona was born in 1942 in Peru to Chilean parents (her father was a Chilean diplomat). Her parents separated when she was very young, and she spent a few years of her childhood in Chile with her mother, two siblings, and grandfather. When Allende was 11, her mother remarried and Allende spent the rest of her childhood in Bolivia and Lebanon.
Isabel Allende is related to another famous Chilean, Salvador Allende, President of Chile from 1970 until he was overthrown in the military coup led by General Pinochet in 1973. Isabel’s father was Salvador Allende’s cousin, and while she barely knew him, the coup and President Allende’s death had an enormous effect on her life, leading her to live in exile in Venezuela for 13 years. She writes about Chilean history and then-current events in several of her books, perhaps most poignantly in her 2003 memoir My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile (Mi País Inventado).
During her early life, Allende lived in several countries in Latin America and Europe, thanks to her father’s, stepfather’s, and then husband’s work. In 1988 she married her second husband, an American, and moved to California, where she still lives. She became a U.S. citizen in 1993.
In 1992, Allende lost her adult daughter, Paula Frias, aged 29, to complications from medication that led to Paula going into a vegetative state. The tragedy inspired her memoir Paula and also prompted Allende to found the Isabel Allende Foundation in 1995. This charity organization has awarded grants to more than 100 nonprofits around the world, delivering life-changing care to hundreds of thousands of women and girls.
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Allende moved around a lot as a child because of her stepfather’s work, and she studied at a North American private school in Bolivia and at an English private school in Lebanon. This schooling gave her an international education and outlook and fluency in English. She finished her secondary schooling in Chile.
Allende has had a long, productive, and celebrated writing career. Over four decades she has published 24 books, which have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 75 million copies, making her one of the best-selling authors in the world.
Before her first book was published (The House of the Spirits/La Casa de los Espiritus) in 1982/85, Allende worked as a journalist. She co-founded the first feminist magazine in Chile, Paula, in 1967; worked in television; wrote and produced a play; and wrote children’s stories and magazines. In 1973, after the coup in Chile led by General Pinochet, Allende and her family moved to Venezuela, where they lived for the next 13 years. Allende continued to work as a journalist in Venezuela.
In 1981, the foundations of her first novel, The House of the Spirits, were laid: after learning that her 99-year-old grandfather was dying, Allende wrote a letter to him. This eventually became The House of the Spirits, a magical-realist family saga and the story of an unnamed Latin American country’s turbulent history. (You can hear more about her writing process for the book on a recent Spark and Fire podcast episode.)
Many of Allende’s works of fiction revolve around historical events. In some (like The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna) the author fictionalized the setting, although readers are encouraged to read between the lines and consider Chile to be the true setting. In other, more recent novels (The Japanese Lover and Long Petal to the Sea), a more identifiable, factually accurate historical setting is depicted.
Allende has received dozens of awards and honorary doctorates for her writing, teaching, and contribution to literature. You can see the full list here, but a few highlights include:
- Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation (2018)
- Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award (2017)
- PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award (2016)
- Honorary Doctorate from Harvard University (2014)
- Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama (2014)
- Hans Christian Andersen Literary Award (2012)
- National Prize for Literature (Premio Nacional de Literatura), Chile (2010)
- Hubert Howe Bancroft Award from the Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley (2007)
- Inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2004)
- Gabriela Mistral Inter-American Prize for Culture (1990)
With more than 75 million book sales in multiple languages, it’s safe to say that Allende is widely and wildly acclaimed. She is a fairly rare author who has achieved widespread popularity among general readers and acclaim among literary critics. She herself, and her books, have been the subject of many academic literary studies, and she’s an essential part of the Latin American Spanish literary canon.
Isabel Allende Books
Which are the best Isabel Allende books? That’s a matter of personal opinion, but all have been popular to a degree. From most recent to earliest, here are all the books written by Allende over the course of her career. The titles are in English, and the dates of publication refer to the English-language publication; typically, the original Spanish title was released a year or two before the translation:
- The Soul of a Woman (2021). Allende’s most recent book, The Soul of a Woman is a non-fiction book recounting all that the author has learned over the years about surviving, and thriving, in this world as a woman.
- A Long Petal of the Sea (2020)
- In the Midst of Winter (2017)
- The Japanese Lover (2015)
- Amor (not yet published in English, Spanish title 2013)
- Ripper (2014)
- Maya’s Notebook (2013)
- Island Beneath the Sea (2010)
- The Sum of Our Days (2008)
- Inés of My Soul (2006)
- Zorro (2005)
- Forest of the Pygmies (2005)
- Kingdom of the Golden Dragon (2004)
- My Invented Country (2003). This memoir takes readers on a personal tour through Allende’s homeland, where she lived for much of her young life until the 1973 coup.
- City of the Beasts (2002). Allende wrote children’s stories in the 1970s and edited a magazine for children. With this young adult novel, the first in a trilogy, Allende returns to one of her literary roots. Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies are the other two installments of the trilogy.
- Portrait in Sepia (2001)
- Daughter of Fortune (1999). Daughter of Fortune is another of Allende’s most popular novels, and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey to be on her well-loved Oprah’s Book Club list.
- Aphrodite (1998)
- Paula (1995). Written in the aftermath of the death of Allende’s 29-year-old daughter, Paula is a soul-baring memoir that draws on magical-realist literary devices.
- The Infinite Plan (1993)
- The Stories of Eva Luna (1991). While most of her books are fiction and memoir, Isabel Allende short stories can be read in this book.
- Eva Luna (1988)
- Of Love and Shadows (1987)
- The House of the Spirits (1985). In 1993, her first novel was adapted into a movie of the same title, starring Winona Ryder, Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Antonio Banderas. The novel remains one of the author’s best-known and loved works.
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