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Friday, May 27, 2011

Allende's Newest Sumptuous and Satisfying

(Image from Indiebound)

I don't know about you, but these days I fly through at least 2-3 books a week. Rarely do I spend a whole seven days on one book. Unless, of course, it's a super busy time of year (like, say, the last week of school), or I have a sick toddler, or, my kids have at least one activity every single night or all of these things occur at the same time I happen to be reading a book by Isabel Allende. If you've ever read the author, you know her sumptuous writing can't be skimmed or rushed. It must be experienced fully in order to truly be appreciated. So that's what I did. For a whole week, I just ... enjoyed. Not that Allende's newest makes for easy reading. Quite the opposite, in fact. Still, it's a rich, moving story that grabbed my attention and kept it for every one of its 457 pages.

Island Beneath the Sea concerns Toulouse Valmorain, a 20-year-old Frenchman who comes to the island of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) in 1770 to help his father run the family's sugarcane plantation. He doesn't plan to stay. Then, his father dies and Toulouse's fate is sealed. Saint-Lazare, the plantation his father has almost run into the ground, now belongs to him. Toulouse gets to work setting the place to rights, making himself wealthy in the process. As a white plantation owner, one of the grands blancs who run the wild, backward island, he has enough money, power and influence to do whatever he pleases.

When Toulouse decides to marry, he asks his favorite courtesan to find his new wife a maid. Violette Boisier suggests young Zarité, known as Tété. The slave girl's scrawny and nappy-headed, but Violette sees potential in her quiet, graceful ways. Soon, Tété's serving the demanding Eugenia Valmorain, a position that keeps her in the big house, away from the cane fields and the brutal overseer who runs them. As she grows into her beauty, Tété cannot escape her master's eye. Or his bed. She doesn't want to be Toulouse's concubine, doesn't want to bear his children, but she's trapped. Her only path to freedom lies in pleasing the insatiable Frenchman.

When a massive slave revolt led by the infamous Toussaint Louverture forces Toulouse Valmorain and the other grands blancs off the island, he sails to New Orleans. To protect her daughter and Valmorain's son, whom she's raised since infancy, Tété goes with him. In America, Tété hopes Toulouse will make good on his promise to free her. But in Lousiana where "abolitionism was considered worse than syphilis" (318), the path to liberation will be fraught with danger, sacrifice and heartache. Maybe more than Tété can bear.

In Island Beneath the Sea, Allende employs deftness and detail to paint an affecting portrait of slavery. Through Toulouse Valmorain, she brings to vivid life all the hatred, hypocrisy and hubris of the institution. With strong, stalwart Tété, she proves the tenacity of the human spirit. Mostly, though, the story is about freedom - what it costs, how it inspires, and what, in the end, it really means. Evocative and eye-opening, the novel requires an investment of time, but it's worth a week. And more.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of a little of Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (no F-bombs), violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Island Beneath the Sea from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.


  1. I have just finished reading The House of Spirits and thoroughly enjoyed it. I will be sure to add this one to my list.

  2. You are so right - Allende's writing is something you simply cannot rush through. I'm glad you spent the extra time on it and that you ended up enjoying it so much. Thanks for being on the tour!


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