My rating: 3 of 5 stars
We meet Maya Nidal when she is nineteen years old. She is a drug and alcohol addict, with rainbow-colored hair and a nose ring, on the road to self-destruction.
We learn that for the first fifteen years of her life, Maya lived an idyllic existence. Not that there weren't problems. One being parental abandonment.
When Maya was only weeks old, her Danish mother delivered her to her in-laws, Maya's grandparents, and left the country never to return. She relinquished all parental rights.
Meanwhile, Maya's father was an airline pilot, constantly in the air. He was the definition of an absentee parent.
But her grandparents, her Nini and her beloved Popo, were very much present. They raised her in a wonderful home in Berkeley, where she was surrounded by love and opportunity to fulfill her potential.
Her Popo was the steadfast anchor and the moral center of her life. As a child, she begged him to promise her that he would never die. He responded by telling her that he would always be with her, and she accepted that as an affirmative.
However, when she was fifteen, Popo became ill. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a few months later he was dead. Maya was devastated and soon her life began to go off the tracks. She turned to drugs, gangs, sex, and petty crime to try to make her life bearable.
Eventually, her father and grandmother get her into a rehab program in Oregon, but she is determined from day one to escape and return to the life of addiction. Soon enough, she does escape and wanders into a nightmare, ending up in Las Vegas working for a criminal gang boss.
Through a series of events, she finds herself bereft of any protection and living on the streets. Penniless, unable to contact her family in California, she survives day-to-day, until she is kidnapped by some of the bad guys from the criminal gang and held prisoner. But she had managed to make one true friend during her time in Las Vegas and he is able to rescue her and take her to the home of a nurse friend who takes her in and, with her church group, sees her through withdrawal.
The nurse contacts Maya's grandmother and she and her father come to pick Maya up. They devise a plan to get her out of the reach of those who may wish her harm. Her Chilean grandmother contacts a friend on a small and remote island off the coast of Chile and soon, after another short stint in rehab, Maya is sent to that friend. And this is where the story really begins.
In Chile, Maya begins to make sense of her life and her family's history and learns about Chilean culture and the terrible history of the time after the overthrow of the Allende government in the 1970s, the event that impelled her Chilean grandmother to emigrate to Canada where she met the man who would become Popo.
The most interesting parts of the book for me were those dealing with Chilean history and describing the island and its people and the way of life which they had worked out for themselves. It turns out that such a place was just the therapy that Maya needed to get her life back on track.
As often happens, I found myself wrestling with whether I should rate this book with three stars or with four. My initial reaction was four, but on reflection, I decided on three, simply because Maya's various transitions seemed just a little too easy, a little too trite. I found her story engaging but a bit shallow and, ultimately, predictable. I read somewhere that Allende wrote this book for her grandchildren, and it seemed a rather cautionary tale: "Don't do drugs!"
Moreover, the magical realism with which we tend to associate Allende was mostly missing here. True, there are ghosts and some unexplained happenings, but there seem to be rational explanations readily available.
At one point, Manuel Arias, the "family friend" who received Maya on the island and took her in and protected her, says, "The whole world is magical." Perhaps we do not have to reach for that magical explanation for reality. It just is.
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