Honored last year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her inspiring fiction and soul-baring memoirs, Allende (Ripper, 2014, etc.) offers a saga of a couple that keeps its affair secret for the better half of a century.
One of the lovers, Alma Belasco (nee Mendel), was barely 8 years old when her Polish parents, fearing rumors of war could prove true, sent her to live with her wealthy American uncle and aunt in San Francisco; bereft yet stoical when she arrives at Sea Cliff, she found allies who were destined to become “her life’s only loves”: her shy but devastatingly handsome and uber-intuitive cousin Nate Belasco; and her childhood playmate Ichimei Fukado, the charismatic son of the Belascos’ gardener, whose family was sent to an internment camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor. That this trio will ultimately help sort each other out is foregone, though how and when is not immediately clear. Allende prolongs the suspense, sprinkling Ichi’s soulful letters to Alma into the narrative of her postwar career as a textile artist with an outwardly perfect marriage and her abrupt decision to move out of the family estate into a Spartan room at Lark House—a slightly whackadoodle senior living residence that was bequeathed to the city by a chocolate magnate. At times Allende’s glib humor misfires (“I get them hooked on a TV series, because nobody wants to die before the final episode,” quips a member of the cleaning staff) or seems stunningly off-key (“Mexico greeted them with its well-known clichés”). Some readers may wince at a closeted gay character’s soft-serve admission: “Hearts are big enough to contain love for more than one person.” But among the white ponytailed hipsters and yoga-practicing widows at the senior center, Alma stands out—she’s haughty and self-centered and, after decades in the rag trade, “[dresses] like a Tibetan refugee.” She’s also a bit of a yenta: she deploys her part-time secretary, Irina (a doughty 23-year-old Romanian émigré), and grandson Seth (Irina’s love-struck suitor) to put her letters, diaries, documents, and other detritus in order. Then she toodles off in her tiny car every few weeks with a small overnight bag. Packed with silk nightgowns. Could this 80-something woman actually be meeting a lover, wonders Irina (who is grappling with some secret baggage of her own)? Just you wait.
Vividly and pointedly evoking prejudices "unconventional" couples among the current-day elderly faced (and some are still battling), Allende, as always, gives progress and hopeful spirits their due.