Isabel Allende has news, surprising news, and for the feminist, best-selling Chilean novelist it came out of nowhere. “I find myself at this old age, for the first time in my life, adored by someone. And let me tell you it’s a very weird feeling,” she reflects.
I can sense Isabel’s utter incredulity as she talks more about the lovestruck New York lawyer Roger Cukras, who she met in October 2016 and married in a quiet family ceremony a few months ago. The story of their romance is like something from – well – a novel, albeit not one of Isabel’s. “He heard me on the radio. He was a widower in New York where he’d lived all his life and was driving to Boston to see his son when he heard me. Immediately he emailed my office. He emailed every morning and every evening for five months.”
Roger was determined to meet the woman behind the voice, whose incredible story and passion for human rights had captivated him. He and Isabel started corresponding by email for several months. “Finally when I went to New York I said, okay, I’ll meet the guy,” says Isabel.
In 2015 Isabel’s 27-year marriage to attorney Willie Gordon ended. Isabel had emigrated to the United States in 1989 to marry Willie but ultimately their love was smothered by loss – Isabel’s daughter and Willie’s two sons died – and sadness. Isabel fully expected that romance was behind her, but this date with a stranger proved otherwise.
“We met and over dinner I said, ‘Look, what are your intentions, because really I don’t have any time to waste’.” Isabel is laughing now. “The poor guy almost choked on the ravioli but he didn’t run off, he persisted.
“When I met him, I realised that he was exactly like the person I thought he was through the emails. He was transparent. A person who was non-threatening, committed totally. He had made up his mind that I was the woman he would love, and I thought that was extraordinary,” says Isabel, still somewhat swept up in it all.
“A few months later he sold his house, gave away everything, all its contents, and moved to my house [in California] with two bags and his clothes, which I promptly discarded because they were very dated… When we became involved romantically I started seeing all the kindness and the love that he was giving me. This was what I was asking of Willie and he could not give me.”
Living in exile
Born in Peru and raised in Bolivia, Lebanon and Chile, Isabel became a best-selling author right off the bat with her now-famous debut novel, The House of the Spirits, in 1982. It was based on a letter she wrote to her dying 99-year-old grandfather. Isabel was living in Caracas, Venezuela, when she first heard that Agustín was dangerously ill. But she was in exile and unable to go to him so – as a journalist – she started to do what she knew best, to write. She began to compose that epic letter on January 8, 1981, and ever since she has started writing her books on January 8, her touchstone day.
Grandpa Agustín had been a key figure in Isabel’s childhood. “My father abandoned my mother in Peru when I was three. I never saw him again,” recalls Isabel. With three children to raise, Isabel’s mother moved back to Chile with her family to live with Agustín. “My grandfather was a larger-than-life personality and a strong man, a wonderful man in many ways, conservative and narrow-minded in many things, and very generous in other things. He is the main character in The House of the Spirits. The character is a mean guy. My grandfather was not mean, but he was that kind of personality: very strong, authoritarian, like an American macho male.
“I think his death was like the end of my childhood and my youth,” Isabel surmises. “It was the end of Chile also, in a way. It cut the umbilical cord to my family and my country in a dramatic way. I’m saying this now because I have thought about this often, but at the time I was just very sad that I couldn’t go back to say goodbye to him, that he was dying, that I was losing him. Now that I look back, I think The House of the Spirits was an exercise in nostalgia, of trying to recover everything I had lost.”
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