June 01, 1987 12:00 PM

by Isabel Allende

“It seemed that nothing interesting was happening in the country, and when it did occur, it was censored.” That marvelously compact, wry and wise sentence from this second novel is a reminder of what a potent writer Allende showed herself to be in her first book, The House of the Spirits. ‘They were born to share life in its totality and to undertake together the audacity of loving each other forever.” That strangely overblown, naive sentence, also from this book, is an example of how artificial Allende can sound when she gets tangled up in thoughts of romance. Such thoughts tend to overpower this novel. Obviously far less sweeping in intent than House, it focuses on Irene Beltrán, a journalist, and Francisco Leal, a photographer, who fall wildly in love while uncovering evidence of government murders of political prisoners. (The country they’re in is never named, though since it has a military government that ousted a democratic regime in a coup, one assumes it to be Chile, the exiled Allende’s former home.) The beginning of the novel is often enthralling as Allende introduces her characters. There are Irene’s patrician mother, reduced to running an old people’s home, and Francisco’s leftist parents, devoted to each other and the Spain they left during the Civil War. Fascinating too—and enigmatic—is Evangelina, a 15-year-old who was given to the wrong family at her birth and seems possessed by some sort of holy or demonic spirit. She becomes a village celebrity, and when someone knocks and asks, “Is this where Evangelina Ranquileo lives?” her mother replies, “Yes, but the miracles are at noon.” These promising beginnings, however, are dissipated in the novel’s last half, which includes a gruesome (though not surprising) discovery as well as the fruition of Irene’s and Francisco’s romance. None of it rings true, neither the lovemaking nor the couple’s eventual flight from government agents. The contrast between the whimsical brutality of the government and the lovers’ trusting devotion never makes much impact either. With so many exiles of various kinds—people exiled from their families as well as their countries—it is ironic that the book ends up leaving a reader feeling so estranged. (Knopf, $17.95)

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