By Nicole Dial
A giant metal elephant head stared down at the vast crowd of over 300 people that squished into the Capitola Book Café on April 3. In between bookshelves, on countertops and even far back into the store, attendees eagerly awaited novelist Isabel Allende.
Allende came to the Book Café to read from her new memoir, “The Sum of Our Days,” which was released this month.
Allende was born in Chile, where she lived until her uncle, socialist president Salvador Allende, was overthrown in 1973. She spent the next 13 years in Venezuela and moved to San Rafael, California in 1988. Despite her travels, Allende still has strong ties to her native land.
“The politics in South America made me a writer,” she said. “I was a journalist, then a refugee in Venezuela with the children. I wrote ‘The House of Spirits’ because of that.”
After leaving her homeland she wrote many other books and short stories, including “Paula,” “Daughter of Fortune,” “Eva Luna” and “Zorro.” Her gift of storytelling gained her worldwide acclaim and her writing has been translated into more than 20 languages.
Armed with her “Chilean sarcasm” and nose for a good story, Allende enraptured the audience. Between speaking of her husband’s novel about an “oversexed dwarf” and the tragedy of her daughter’s death, she discussed life’s sometimes bizarre but essential truths. But when asked about her life and family being exposed to the world, she candidly stated that she could care less.
“What makes you vulnerable are the secrets you keep,” she said.
Though Allende currently lives in the United States and speaks English, all of her books are translated from Spanish.
“Fiction happens in the womb,” she said.
Allende explained that she uses her writing as a tool of self-discovery and a way of working through her grief, especially in her previous memoir, “Paula.”
“In grieving you find extraordinary gifts,” Allende said.
Besides working as an acclaimed novelist, Allende also began the Isabel Allende Foundation as a tribute to her late daughter, Paula, in the hope of empowering women and supporting Bay Area and Chilean nonprofits that are dedicated to helping women and girls.
Her reading ended with a standing ovation as young and old attendees clamored for her autograph.
Nicole Simons, a UC Santa Cruz student, was impressed by the author’s presence despite having never read one of her books.
“She was very witty and has a way of portraying a story to someone who was completely on the outside,” Simons said.
Simons’ sentiment was widely shared, as audience members praised Allende and her writing.
“Fans met the woman behind the voice,” said Janet Leimister, co-owner of the Capitola Book Café. “It was very powerful stuff.”