Violeta (2022) is a novel by Isabel Allende. Written as an epistolary exploration by the eponymous protagonist, the novel recounts the various historical and personal events of her life, which spans a century, in an unnamed Latin American country. The book explores themes of feminism, the intersection of the personal and political, and learning from life.
Allende is one of the world’s bestselling Spanish-language authors. Her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, won her profound literary acclaim, and she went on to write more than 25 bestselling and critically acclaimed books. Her works have been translated into more than 42 languages and have won numerous awards, including Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2010. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2015.
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This guide is based on the Bloomsbury Publishing Kindle Edition.
Content Warning: The source material features references to and descriptions of suicide, sexual assault, domestic abuse, anti-LGBTQ+ biases and slurs, and substance use and addiction.
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The book begins with an untitled prologue, a letter from Violeta to her grandson Camilo in which she explains why she is recounting her life story. The book is divided into four parts, corresponding with specific periods of Violeta’s life and arranged in chronological order. The first part, titled “Exile,” covers the first two decades of her life, from 1920 to 1940.
Violeta is born into the aristocratic Del Valle family the year the influenza pandemic arrives in her country. She describes the different members of her household—her parents; unmarried maternal aunts; oldest brother, José Antonio; Apolonio “Torito” Toro, an adolescent orphan adopted by the family; and Violeta’s Irish governess (a term describing a woman employed to educate children), Josephine Taylor. The family resides in the capital of the country, and Violeta’s father, Arsenio Del Valle, is not very prudent with his investments, despite José Antonio’s warnings. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Arsenio loses everything, and distraught, dies by suicide. The family is forced to sell most of their belongings and move to the countryside. They are taken in by Josephine’s lover Teresa Rivas’s parents, who have a farm, Santa Clara, in the southern province of Nahuel. The years Violeta spends there are extremely educational and enriching for her.
The second part, titled “Passion,” covers the next two decades of Violeta’s life. She describes her marriage to Fabian Schmidt-Engler, a German immigrant and veterinarian, which abruptly ends when Violeta begins an affair with a pilot named Julián Bravo. She moves to the fictional Sacramento, where she helps José Antonio with his business of building prefabricated homes. Violeta eventually has two children with Julián, a boy named Juan Martin and a daughter named Nieves; despite this, Fabian continues to refuse her an annulment. However, Violeta and Julián begin to live together as a couple, and their relationship is eventually accepted in society.
Julián begins to fly private flights in Argentina, Cuba, and Miami, the first for secret government plots, and the latter two alternatively for members of the mafia and for Castro-led rebels who plan to overthrow the Cuban government. Once Fulgencio Batista’s Cuban dictatorship falls and the Cuban flights are no longer profitable, Julián moves his base to Miami. Violeta stays in Sacramento with the business and the children. Julián visits them often, but his relationship with Violeta is volatile and abusive.
The Valdivian earthquake of 1960 damages the house in Santa Clara, and Teresa passes away in the aftermath. A grieving Josephine eventually marries José Antonio, who has loved her since she first came to live with the Del Valles. Fabian, in need of money to finance a new research lab, finally sells Violeta the annulment. At the same time, strange rumors begin emerging about an agricultural community of German immigrants in the country, called Colonia Esperanza.
The third part, titled “Absence,” details Violeta’s life from 1960 to 1983. She sees a psychiatrist, with whose help she finally breaks off her relationship with Julián. Julián, in turn, appoints another one of his lovers, Zoraida Abreu, to take care of his illegal businesses in Miami. As Julián and Violeta’s children grow up, Julián grows more distant from their son while developing an unhealthy, almost obsessive relationship with their daughter. Nieves eventually runs away from home and falls into a life of substance addiction and sex work. Julián hires a private detective named Roy Cooper to keep track of Nieves, occasionally forcibly admitting her to rehab centers. However, she continually runs away from rehab.
Nieves eventually becomes pregnant and reaches out to Roy for help. He sets her up in a friend’s home in Los Angeles, California, and, having begun a romantic relationship with Violeta, informs her about the situation. Violeta stays with Nieves throughout her pregnancy, repairing her relationship with her daughter. Nieves dies in childbirth, and Violeta brings Nieves’s son, Camilo, back to the fictional Sacramento (in Latin America).
The political situation in Violeta’s country worsens. A Socialist president is democratically elected, but there is constant disagreement within the coalition parties, and propaganda and pushback from the right-wing parties backed by the United States. Juan Martin, who campaigned for the Socialist president, is ban-listed when a military coup topples the government. Violeta attempts to have him transported across national borders by smuggling him into Santa Clara from Sacramento and having Torito accompany him from there on foot. Weeks later, she learns that Torito, who hasn’t returned, was taken away by military officers, and she has no news of him or Juan Martin for years. She doesn’t believe Julián when he claims to have no information either.
Violeta eventually discovers that Juan Martin is working as a journalist in Argentina. He is forced to flee to Norway when a military coup arrives in Argentina but adapts well to life in his new home. Simultaneously, Violeta meets Harald Fiske, a Norwegian diplomat and birdwatching enthusiast who visits Violeta’s country every year for the latter. He brings her news of Juan Martin from Norway. Following a long struggle with a weakened heart and dementia, José Antonio passes away; Josephine, who battled cancer for a long time, follows him a year later.
The fourth part, titled “Rebirth,” recounts the last decades of Violeta’s life, from 1983 to 2020. When human bones are discovered in a sealed up cave near Nahuel, Violeta finally learns that Torito was among a group of tenant farmers shot dead by military officers. She also discovers that Julián knew about both Torito and Juan Martin; this, in addition to his continued secret work with Colonia Esperanza, leaves Violeta desiring revenge. With Zoraida’s help, Violeta sees Julián arrested for illegal work, including fraud and drug trafficking, in the United States. Following his time in prison, Julián moves to a ranch in Patagonia, Chile.
News of Torito’s death changes the course of Violeta’s life. She begins a new phase of activism and social work, getting involved with women’s groups and their work and starting a foundation in Nieves’s name dedicated to working for women’s issues. Roy passes away of cancer, but just a year later, Harald re-enters her life and eventually becomes her loving husband. As Camilo grows up, the once rebellious and mischievous boy decides to enter the seminary. Violeta continues her work well into her nineties with vigor and enthusiasm; when Harald, 13 years younger than her, passes away on her 95th birthday, however, she comes to terms with her mortality. A few years later, she falls, and her physical health deteriorates, but she is left with time and space to write her life story. The final chapter sees Violeta writing in the last days of her life, isolated at Santa Clara owing to the coronavirus pandemic and bedridden by a hemorrhage. As the book closes, Violeta sees her daughter, Nieves, come to greet her as she dies.
By Isabel Allende