Isabel Allende: It's never too late to fall in love

Bestselling author Isabel Allende talks to Rowena Walsh about life, grief, and why it’s never too late to fall in love

Isabel Allende: It's never too late to fall in love

Bestselling author Isabel Allende talks to Rowena Walsh about life, grief, and why it’s never too late to fall in love

ISABEL Allende is in love.

The 77-year-old bestselling novelist is often asked what it is like to fall in love at her age.

Her reply? “It’s exactly the same as to be in love when you’re 20. The only difference is that you have no time to waste, so there is a sense of urgency. A sense that years go by very fast, so we have to enjoy what we have now.

“This urgency keeps us on our toes and gives us a sense of gratitude and joy. We don’t have time for pettiness, for little fights, for jealousy, for complaining about somebody’s mess or whatever. We just enjoy what we have.”

Isabel’s life has been marked by turbulence, exile, grief, and love. The Chilean-born author was three years old when her father abandoned the family. Her mother later married a diplomat but they were forced to flee to Venezuela when Augusto Pinochet took over Chile in a bloody coup in 1973. There, she wrote her debut novel, The House of the Spirits, originally a letter to her grandfather, and her life changed yet again as she was catapulted to literary stardom.

To date, 74m copies of her books have been sold worldwide. Her latest novel A Long Petal of the Sea tells the story of exiles fleeing the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War for the safety of Chile.

The important crossroads in her life, the moments in which her life have taken an unexpected turn, were completely out of her control, she says. “The only thing I could control was how I reacted to the event.”

The worst moment was the death of her 29-year-old daughter Paula after a year-long coma caused by complications of porphyria. Isabel took care of Paula and during this time started writing a letter to her daughter explaining what she was missing so she would not be confused when she recovered. The memoir later became a tribute to her.

“When she died, my mother said that ‘this is the worst kind of sorrow, nothing can help, this is a long, dark road, and you have to walk it day by day, tear after tear, and you have to walk it alone, no-one can really help. But this will end, or it will get better, and nothing that happens to you in the future is comparable. So you have already gone through the worst, you are strong enough for anything that comes in the future.’

“And to a certain extent, she was right. Nothing has happened to me since then that I can say is even comparable to that kind of pain. But it could happen in the future, I still have another son, I have grandchildren, I have Roger.”

She met her third husband Roger Cukras after her marriage to writer Willie Gordon ended in 2015.

Gordon, who died last year, had three children and Isabel says they all struggled with drug addiction. His daughter died shortly after Paula. Then, years later, his youngest son died, also of an overdose.

“I think we sort of soldiered through the first two deaths, but the third death just broke us as a couple. Willie was so devastated, he lost all interest in the marriage, our relationship. I would say, in life, he sort of gave up.”

Their break-up was amicable, and she says she wasn’t looking for anyone when Roger, a widowed lawyer, heard her speaking on radio and contacted her office. They began emailing daily and met five months later when she was in New York for a meeting. “I wasn’t intending to get married because I thought what’s the point? I’m not going to start raising a family at my age. But he is a very traditional person, although politically very progressive, and for him, marriage was very important.

“I realised after I got married that that kind of formal commitment is important for me too.”

Today Isabel lives in California and says that she has one foot there and the other in Chile. “I am a foreigner but in a good way. I don’t feel that I don’t belong. I do belong here and in Chile as well.”

She became an American citizen in 1993, and received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honour, from Barack Obama in November 2014.

She set up the Isabel Allende Foundation in 1996 in homage to her daughter Paula. Its mission is to invest in the power of women and girls to secure reproductive rights, economic independence, and freedom from violence.

Isabel, who says that she has been a feminist from the age of six, rails against the damage Trump has done to the morale of the US. “The economy might be good but the country is divided. There is hatred and violence, xenophobia, the values that we thought sustained this democracy have been attacked, and I hope that the democratic institutions in this country will be able to sustain this assault and prevail.”

She has started writing new work every January 8 since 1981 when she began The House of The Spirits, and she has no plans to retire. “I would like in my future to keep on working, still be in love with Roger until the very end, and to be together.

“Maybe my contribution is less than a drop of water but there is some contribution to the kind of world that I dream of, a world where there is more equality, where compassion and inclusion will prevail.”

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