Have you ever seen such cruelty?

I happened to pick up Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea, and now I’m sorry.  Okay, so the cover said it was “[t]he sweeping story of an unforgettable woman–a slave and a concubine determined to claim her own destiny against impossible odds.”  So I was warned.

In my defense, I didn’t expect it to be great literature, and I assumed I’d have to skip some steamy parts (right-o).  But Allende’s earlier novel, The House of the Spirits, was actually a good book — not perfect, but interesting, carefully made, funny, and original.

Island was none of these.  The author apparently felt that what the world needs now is yet another novel about a strong and valiant woman who is cruelly crushed by western culture and masculinity, yet rises from the ashes and manages to learn to support herself and have children and orgasms — but historical!

I’ve never written fiction, but I know an early draft when I see one.  Even if you ignore the loud creaking noise made by the elderly clichés  described above, you will get lost in the disorder of this sloppy work.

Major plot points are exposed so clumsily that you can just hear the author thinking, “Crap, I meant to put that in sixty pages ago!  Well, a deadline’s a deadline — I’ll just cram it in . . . let’s see, here.”

Some characters are elaborately and meticulously introduced, only to evaporate without explanation in the second half of the book; while others leap fully-formed halfway through the plot, leaving the reader to wonder, “Wait, who is this guy?  How did he get to be so important?”  Subplots are hinted at, never to appear again, and satisfyingly huge denouements are promised, but all you get is a fizzle.

There are long, confusing passages of dry historical detail (the book takes place during the Haitian revolution, which should have been interesting) which are followed abruptly by hastily sketched-in descriptions of the cruelty of a slave’s life, the cruelty of a young student’s life, the cruelty of men toward women, etc.  I kept thinking about this scene from Blazing Saddles:

In Island Beneath the Sea, whole chapters go that way.

The prose (it can’t all be the translator’s fault) is also clunky beyond belief.  Wade through this if you can:

He was amazed by his ardor, renewed every night, and even at times at midday, when he arrived unexpectedly, boots covered with mud, and surprised her embroidering among the pillows of her bed, expelled the dogs with one sweep of his hands, and fell upon her with the jubilation of again feeling eighteen.  (271)

I knew a guy who surprised my embroidering once.  It wasn’t pretty.

So, to sum up:  Women damaged by rape and oppression, healed overnight by a tender lover who’s not so grabby?  Check.

Women controlling their fate through choosing when and where to be slutty?  Check.

Swooning approval of loathsome behavior as long as it’s done consensually in the name of lurve?  Check.

Catholic priest who’s a good guy mainly because he says that voodoo is basically the same as Catholicism, so you go right ahead and bite the head off that chicken?  Check.

Writing whole chapters in italics to show that certain characters are deep souls who speak interiorly? Check.

Dreadfully predictable switcheroo with an inexcusable number of various mixed-race babies?  Check, check, and check.

Railing against the senselessness of racism and sexism while shamelessly exploiting both in lieu of character development?  Check.  (For a quick reference guide:  dark skin=good; female=good.  Light skin=bad, male=bad.   Black female is double plus good; white male double plus ungood.)

Throw in some tutti fruity quasi-lyrical nonsense about surrendering to the power of the drums and the dance, and, according to Allende, you’ve got yourself a novel.  For a more insightful and entertaining exploration of race, just go ahead and watch Blazing Saddles.  It’s twoo, it’s twoo!

(Cross-posted at The Anchoress)


  1. *snort* “surprised my embroidery” *snicker*

    You’ve beautifully summed up my entire experience reading Allende. I leave each work a little sad, not for all the relevant reasons you so carefully listed, but because I have lost the thread by page 50 and I just don’t understand. It makes my head hurt.

  2. I am impressed that you bothered to finish it. I have a small, but growing pile of “couldn’t finish” books, and from your hysterical description, I’m rather sure I would have tossed this one into that pile.

    I am glad you finished though because I thoroughly enjoyed this review.

  3. Guess that ones coming off my Amazon wish list.

    Many, many years ago I took a women’s literature class as an elective. Yeah, I know — I had no idea what I was getting into.

    I was thinking, you know, Austen, Dickinson, Bronte…

    At the time there was no such thing as Women’s Studies — at least not at Virginia Tech. So the would-be Women’s Studies professors all took up residence in the English Department.

    Not only was the reading AWFUL, but the teacher graded my work like I was her ex-husband or something.

    Oh, Blazing Saddles — a comedy classic!

  4. Forget this stuff. Go sci fi/fantasy or horror. Don’t mock. Not the stupid vampires.

    Masterful storytellers – like Dan Simmons, Richard Matheson, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman and the oft-maligned but ultimate craftsman Stephen King – can really deliver. Characters that leap off the page. Plots that keeps you up till 2am. Noble themes, interesting and original thoughts, and startling range.

    May I recommend:
    Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons
    I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
    A Song of Fire & Ice (series), by George RR Martin
    American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
    Different Seasons, by Stephen King

    That last one, by King, is all short stories. One of them is “The Body” which turned into “Stand by Me”, another is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, which turned into “The Shawshank Redemption”. The short stories are twice as good as the movies.

    I promise none of these titles will disappoint!

  5. Blazing Saddles is one of those things that leave me feeling horribly left out. Most of the people whose opinions I respect seem to love this movie, but I just can’t get into it. Maybe it’s Gene Wilder’s fault. His hair disturbs me.

    • I really do understand about his hair. I couldn’t even look at it with both eyes until I was in my thirties. I kept on exposing myself to it (I recommend Young Frankenstein) and eventually I started to appreciate his particular, very creepy kind of comic genius.

  6. Oh my, can it be that my capricious little phone is allowing me to comment on your blog? this is exciting! Your list of cliches is right on. These motifs are a little like Lisa Simpson saying, “that’s right- a GIRL wants to play football!”

  7. Mrs. Fisher,

    I hope my missive here is well received, and I apologize for sending it to you via this forum. However, being a Luddite, I found no other way to do so (or, I am too lazy to really investigate how to communicate with you otherwise). My wife, Christine, and I thoroughly enjoy your honesty and candor regarding your experience with the Catholic faith. Should you and your husband decide to move to further west, I cannot recommend a better place to be than Colorado Springs, CO (granted, it isn’t as Catholic as, say, Omaha, NE, but we do have a great time here minus the wind and tornadoes.

    My only last request is that the movie, “Mystic Pizza,” be reviewed by you or the Jerk to evaluate it on its own merits

    All the joy imaginable,



  8. The author apparently felt that what the world needs now is yet another novel about a strong and valiant woman who is cruelly crushed by western culture and masculinity, yet rises from the ashes and manages to learn to support herself and have children and orgasms — but historical!

    I know this is a year old post, but I just have to comment. You’ve basically summarized the plot of every single Isabel Allende novel written after 1995. The House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows were good reads, the rest are reiterations of the same tired Women’s Studies tropes: Orgasms=good, Church=Bad.

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