A family memoir THE SUM OF OUR DAYS by ISABEL ALLENDE
– P. Jyothi
ISABEL ALLENDE is the most famous Chilean writer and is regarded as the most read Spanish novelist in the world. THE SUM OF OUR DAYS is her autobiography which can be also called as a Sequel to her most acclaimed book “Paula”. Isabel lost her daughter Paula to a disease called Porphyria. Paula was just 29 years old at the time of her death, and she spent most of her last months in Coma. In this book Isabel says that she took one whole year to write Paula. It was a process of healing to her and also a means to vent out the trauma faced due to this personal loss and tragedy. THE SUM OF OUR DAYS starts after the death of her precious daughter and goes on explaining the next thirteen years of the life of the family without Paula. There are many autobiographies we come across but this is much different from many of them. The author has a unique style of narration and that makes this an interesting read. Isabel writes in Spanish and all her books are translated into English. This was translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. This was an interesting read because through this we come to know about the Spanish tribal method of living together, which appears very much like the Indian joint family culture. It was touching to read how the tribe stayed clinging to one other in spite of their personal differences and opinions.
Isabel has been, always wanting her family to be around her. In this book she mentions the day when most of her family has gone into the forest to select a spot beside the stream to scatter Paula’s ashes. After this she always had a feeling that her daughter was around them and protecting the family. Isabel always felt her presence in their house and she tells some instances when a few of the family members claim that they have seen a ghost in the house. Isabel comes from a culture where magic realism is a form of expression and this memoir too has its traces just like Isabel’s other books. There are so many beliefs discussed, and the writer happily mentions and accepts the age old customs which appear fictional and non scientific to the logical mind. Isabel’s Son Nico also feels the same and he has a debate with his mother when he feels that her arguments are non scientific. Isabel was greatly influenced by these age old beliefs and lived making them a part of her life.
She also freely speaks about her superstitions in this book. She always starts her new novel on January 8th and always followed this ritual. On one January 8th she starts this memoir starting from the ending of her previous book “Paula” In the first chapter she recollects the day when the family visits the forest to scatter Paula’s ashes. Then she tells about her husband Willie Gordon who has three children from his previous marriage. All of them are addicted to heroin and are openly known as drug addicts. Smoking a joint once in a while is a ritual the family takes part in, but Jennifer, Willie’s daughter is an addict and lives away from the family. Willie is a lawyer and he always carries the burden of getting his daughter out of trouble and in and out of prison. In this state of a Junkie, Jennifer declares that she is pregnant and delivers a baby girl after a few months. No one in the family expects the baby to survive considering the medical state of the mother. But the infant who proves to be a fighter from the moment it comes on to the earth surprises everyone and goes on breathing. The girl is named Sabrina who is later given into adoption to a Buddhist lesbian couple. The acceptance of Sexual preferences, religious preferences and life styles in the family astonishes us easterners, as we go into the next chapters. Sabrina is given into adoption but the family, accepts these two mothers into the tribe and calls them their extended family. Jennifer later goes missing and the family assumes that she must have died somewhere. Every time they remember Paula they also pay their respects to Jennifer and honor her soul.
We get introduced to Isabel’s long time friend Tabra who is a jeweler designer. She survives an abusive marriage. She later has a long line of lovers and is very independent and open with the choices she makes. She becomes an integral part of the family and always has a separate room reserved in their house. As the book goes on we find Tabra as be a woman of strong convictions. Twice we find her starting her life from scratch and collecting the bits and pieces of her life, and trying to make a fresh start, every time when life crushes her. Then there are Willie’s two Sons. At the end of the novel, Isabel mentions that Willie’s first son was not willing to be a part of this book and hence she had to delete those parts where he was mentioned in her draft. Therefore, not much is known about him except that he also was addicted to drugs. Willie’s other Son Jason brings home his girl friend Sally. The family feels that they both cannot stay together for long, but Sally tries hard to bond with the family and also spends her time helping Isabel with her work. Isabel’s Son Nico is married to Celia and they have three children. Celia is a strong woman. She gets attracted to Sally and declares that she is bi sexual, and thus divorces Nico and chooses to live with Sally. Isabel approves the arrangement and remains the same old confident to Celia which angers Nico. The children share their time with both the parents. As days pass, Celia changes her previous role of a mother into an independent adventurer, while Sally happily becomes the mother for the three children and accepts the responsibility to be the woman of the house.
Nico is later married to Lori. They do not have children and after several failed infertility attempts Lori accepts Nico’s children as her own and drops her dream to be a mother. The book also tells about the assistant of Willie who is a Chinese man and after his bitter divorce he goes to China to get a traditional wife who can serve the patriarch of the house. The new Chinese wife takes up the job of a homemaker and displays her hard working and also witty nature at times, to everyone around. Isabel finds a strong independent side in her which she appreciates and though language is their barrier they all bond well. Then there is Isabel’s Grandmother Abuela Hildita who supports the family and is always there when someone needs her. She is a woman of strong will and accepts people as they are. She never comments or hurts anyone. Her level of acceptance when it comes to the choices made by the youngsters surprises even Isabel many times.
Isabel corresponds with her mother almost daily. And it is those letters which helped her to write this memoir with precise details. All through the novel we find profound sadness and the loss of Paula and Jennifer. They always remain a part of this tribe. Willie who is a born American could never understand Paula’s intention to be surrounded with her people always. But living with her he learns to be comfortable, having so many individuals around and he learns to accept everyone as a part of the family. Willie and Isabel also travel the world together. We find a chapter where their travel and experiences in India are mentioned. Isabel tells how a tribal woman gave an infant into her hands and ran away expecting the foreign woman to take the child along with her to her country. Isabel questions the guide why the mother wanted to give the baby away. The guide explains that no one wants a girl child and this discrimination Isabel also finds with the Chinese couple working for her. It saddens how these intelligent foreigners always are subjected to the wrong side of India. Visiting India was Paula’s wish and Isabel travels all over the country with Paula in her heart. There is also a constant fear of kids being affected by Poryphyria in the family, because it is a genetic disease. The family lives with this fear. They are extra cautious and careful while dealing with any form of sickness.
Paula was briefly married to Ernesto. After her death, Ernesto marries another woman but still stays in touch with Isabel and her family. He becomes a part of the family after his marriage to Paula and her death brings him still closer to everyone. We also find a lot of friends being accepted into the family and helped, heard and addressed in need. Isabel also speaks about how she was inspired to write children’s books and that the plot for those stories was inspired from her Chilean days of storytelling. We see Catholics, Atheists and Buddhists staying under the same roof, Sexual preferences and change of partners is treated as a personal choice but relationships were never based on these. Nico distances himself from Celia but the other members always accepted her and welcomed her warmly into the family.
All through the book we find a unique relationship between Willie and Isabel. She repeatedly thanks the almighty for their special bonding and the togetherness they share. It surprised me to learn that they got separated after two decades of married life in 2015 and Isabel married again in 2019. (This does not come in this book but is a part of the extra information I picked from the net trying to know about the author in detail). Relationships were always accepted straightforwardly and that surprises us to witness the level of acceptance by other members of the family, when one of them decides to change the course of their life, at any given stage and point of time.
I enjoyed this book for its narrative style. Isabel is very open with her thoughts on any subject she picks up, and does not hesitate to add her individual views to her narration. She is mostly a tribal woman by nature. Her love for the antiques, her choice of jewelry, her rituals and her desire to be surrounded always with people of her own tribe describe her roots. She is a Chilean at heart and though she is living in a different country her background dominates most of her decisions in life. We also find Willie attempting to write his own books and witness their debate concerned to their retirement. Willie’s Son Jason with whom Sally broke up to live with Celia takes up writing as a profession and accepts Judy as his partner and becomes the only steady offspring of Willie who could take control over his life.
As an Indian for me this book was informative about the lives on the other side of the globe. Their beliefs, their living styles and their philosophy of life were displayed on every page of the book. What we get to notice is the respect everyone has for one another. Even children are highly individualistic and are respected for their attitude. It did give me an insight of another world and helped me understand how unbiased thinking matters in making our lives more comfortable and less painful. We need to read books from different countries and cultures. It helps us to think about humanity in a totalitarian aspect and also opens up various thoughts related to human life on this planet. And for a regular reader, the unique narrative style used in this biography by the author makes it an interesting read. We find all the shades of human life with grief at the centre. We also understand that every one mentioned in the book has something to grieve for and they matured in life, learning to cope up with grief in their own way. Living in a tribe too everybody is an individual and no one ever compromises on their individuality and that was a great feature explained and exhibited in this memoir.