Imagine at the age of 100 chronicling your life amidst the turmoil and tumult of the last century, having witnessed not just your personal highs and lows but also those of humanity. It's a daunting task, but it's what Chilean author Isabel Allende attempts with her epic new novel "Violeta" (Ballantine, 336 pp., ★★½ out of four, out now), translated by Frances Riddle. It turns out that such a monumental book can be difficult to orchestrate, even for a writer as talented as Allende.
"Violeta" opens with a letter from the titular character, Violeta Del Valle, to her grandson Camilo. In it, she asks for him to discard the letters she has sent him over the years and to read her one true and unedited life story she has written for him.
Violeta's story is divided into four parts and begins on a stormy night in 1920 in an unnamed nation in South America. She is born to a wealthy family while the tail end of the 1918 influenza pandemic still rages. Violeta begins life as dramatically as she will live it.
Violeta is the first daughter after five sons born to a father full of bravado and a mother distant and sickly. Allende goes deep into Violeta's formative years filled with tragedies, including her family losing everything during the Great Depression and the death of her beloved father.
There is depth to Violeta and her early years. The reader is invested, ready and willing to jump with Violeta into her unknown future. But it is not long after Violeta is out in the world on her own that the novel loses something. Where there was depth, the novel becomes more shallow – not in subject matter, but in the oncoming and numerous plots. There is no central theme.
There are love affairs, deaths and births, as well as the exploration of drug addiction, domestic abuse and women's rights, all set against the backdrop of two world wars, natural disasters and revolutions. But like a snowball rolling down a hill, the stories pile on all too quickly, making the reader feel like there is something missing.
And that something missing is the depth of Allende's narrative as Violeta ages. What starts out as an epic journey with diverse and fully formed characters slowly turns into a checklist. As the number of plotlines increases, the more the narrative gets the short shrift, until each new storyline is boiled down to its essence and message.
But even with the plots' varying depths, Allende's writing still stands out, her voice beautifully lyrical. Her storytelling talent is front and center – the fatal flaw is that there are too many stories to tell, especially in the space of only a few hundred pages. Perhaps if the story was written as a series, "Violeta" could have been a masterful portrait of a woman who lived 100 years. But as a standalone novel in four parts, "Violeta" is just too much story in too few pages, even for Allende.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Best selling author Isabel Allende tackles sexuality, abuse and revolution in drama-filled 'Violeta'