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In Memoir, Allende Reveals Life to Late Daughter

Apr 13, 2008 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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For Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, a mother-daughter bond is something to forge and nurture daily — even after death.

Allende still writes a letter to her mother every day, a tradition that has endured for years. And before her daughter, Paula, died in 1992, Allende exchanged daily letters with both women.

Those letters are the cornerstone for Allende's memoir, The Sum of Our Days, which is a sequel to Paula, a memoir she wrote as her daughter was dying of the enzyme disorder porphyria. The latest installment updates Paula on what's happened to Allende and her family since Paula's death.

The Sum of Our Days begins in a forest where the family has gathered to scatter Paula's ashes. Allende tells NPR's Lynn Neary that returning to that difficult period wasn't hard for her.

"All the events are very fresh for me," Allende says. "The emotional part wasn't hard either, because many years have gone by and I've learned to live with the spirit of my daughter in such a comfortable way. ... I would love to have her alive, but she's in my heart."

But it's Allende's turbulent family life and eccentric friends that are at the heart of the book. In a revealing narrative, Allende tells her daughter about many of the important events in her "tribe" since 1992: emotional crises that include a stepdaughter's drug addiction and death, and Allende's new life as a successful writer living in California.

Most of her family agreed to let her expose their lives in print. "I learned a lot about each of them," Allende says. "My mind works like a storyteller. I want the highlights, the lowlights, the tension, the tragic. That's what interests me."

Although the memoir sometimes seems like a melodramatic Spanish telenovela, Allende says she's as much of a story collector as she is a writer. From her early years in exile — she fled the country after her uncle, former Chilean President Salvador Allende died in a coup led by Augusto Pinochet — to the ups and downs of her vibrant family, Allende says writing is just one aspect of her life.

"I see myself more as a woman, a mother, a lover, the owner of my dog," she says. "You need a weird family to be a writer."

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