IN THE MIDST OF WINTER, by Isabel Allende. Atria, 342 pp., $28.
In her 22nd book, “In the Midst of Winter,” Isabel Allende shakes the storyteller’s snow globe and the result is not just a fictional snowstorm but also the rearrangement of mortal beings caught in the elements. Devotees of Allende’s forays into magical realism (“House of Spirits,” “The Stories of Eva Luna”) will find the universe she creates here — an account of earthly lives lived in an earthly setting — more madcap and macabre.
A road accident during an epic blizzard leads to the meeting of scholarly Richard and Evelyn, a Brooklyn nanny, on an icy, snow-covered street. Richard, an anxiety-ridden academic with few emotional attachments, is on an errand of mercy for one of his cats. Evelyn, a Guatemalan refugee who cares for the disabled son of an unscrupulous employer, is terrified since she has borrowed her employer’s car without permission. When Evelyn makes a dreadful discovery in the trunk, she reluctantly but desperately turns to Richard for assistance. Richard lets down his guard and enlists the help of his tenant and academic colleague — Chilean expat Lucia — and the three band together to “dispose of the evidence.” What follows is a caper: cinematic in quality and marked by moments of reflection, yearning, terror and a bit of slapstick comedy.
“Outside, the snow settled gently on the white Lexus,” Allende writes, “as Evelyn told them the story of her past. Over the next three days, as the storm wearied of punishing the land and dissolved far out to sea, the lives of Lucia Maraz, Richard Bowmaster, and Evelyn Ortega would become inextricably linked.”
It’s not giving anything away to reveal that moose excrement and an ugly Chihuahua make appearances, but it is the human back stories that ground the novel in more familiar Allende territory. Richard’s personal failures are revealed in a series of slow-burn episodes once the action is underway. Lucia and Evelyn’s lives in Chile and Guatemala are the subjects of frequent time-hops in the narrative, allowing Allende to weave in tales of the many who disappeared under both the Pinochet government and the reign of terror of MS-13.
The losses endured by all of the players might seem unendurable. The mounting wreckage includes lost lives, failed marriages, illness, insanity and political exploitation of the most vulnerable. But it is the relationships among the damaged actors that allow Allende to revisit her perennial themes: the mystical power of women and the curative power of love.
“The only cure for so much misfortune is love,” Lucia explains to Richard. “It’s not the force of gravity that keeps the universe in balance, but the binding power of love.”
In the midst of this stormy adventure, a quieter story of love and redemption unfolds between Richard and Lucia. When Richard expresses a reluctance to tempt fate any further, the irrepressible Lucia responds: “What’s the worst that can happen? More suffering?”
While “In the Midst of Winter” lacks subtlety at points — the title, epigraph and ending dialogue all refer to the same Camus quotation — the novel delivers opportunities for the reader to ponder nuanced moral questions involving immigration policies and the administration of natural justice. Humans ignore these issues at their peril, Lucia cautions Richard: “But see how life refuses to leave us in peace? Sooner or later it catches up with us.” Allende reminds us that this can happen in any season of life.