Maya's Notebook, Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, 2013, 387 pp
Isabel Allende never lets me down. Whether she writes a novel about a comic book hero (Zorro), a memoir about losing her daughter to a rare disease (Paula), or a coming-of-age/young adult hybrid (Maya's Notebook), I read happily absorbed in the story and the characters. Behind everything she writes is an underlying sense of history and a humanist creed about the worth of individuals.
Maya: deserted physically by her mother and emotionally by her father, was raised by her grandparents-Nini, a strong, protective, mystical woman who escaped from Chile during the politically troubled 1970s and Popo, a gentle and loving African-American astronomer and professor. When Popo dies, Maya goes majorly off the rails, leaves high school, runs away, and descends into drug abuse with all the attendant horrors.
Eventually Nini finds and rescues her but by then she is in so much trouble that Nini sends her to a remote Chilean island to hide out. There, Maya begins to keep a journal and documents her journey back to sanity while making a record of how she got so crazy. Thus Maya's Notebook is exactly that. Maya's story told in Maya's voice.
Though this is a gritty story with plenty of human degradation, criminality, sex, and drugs, it has equal amounts of beauty. Nini's purple house in Berkeley, CA, and her fellow members of the People's Independent Republic of Berkeley embody a beauty of spirit. The island in the archipelago of Chiloe, where Maya lives for a year comprises wild beauty, native myths, the encroachments of modern civilization, and Manual Arias. Manual is Nini's old friend who has consented to take Maya in and protect her. Their initial meeting goes like this:
"I'm Manual Arias," the man introduced himself in English.
"Hi. I'm on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang," I announced bluntly, to avoid any misunderstandings.
"Congratulations," he said.
"I haven't killed anybody and frankly, I don't think any of them would go to the trouble of coming to look for me all the way down here in the asshole of the world."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to insult your country, man. Actually it's really pretty, lots of green and lots of water, but look how far away it is!"
"From California, from civilization, from the rest of the world. My Nini didn't tell me it'd be cold."
"It's summer," he informed me.
The snotty tongued Maya and the reticent Manual eventually help each other to dig out of equally horrific pasts and though the final pages of what is a truly exciting story may be a bit sentimental, they are part of the character of the entire tale.