“A Long Petal Of The Sea” is a moving, brilliantly conceived historical novel that follows the lives of Victor Dalmau and his wife, Roser, through the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean coup and beyond. The novel describes human cruelty, strength and perseverance through a compelling and emotional form of storytelling that is quintessential Isabel Allende.
Victor Dalmau joins the Republican Army in Spain in 1936, fighting Franco and his nationalist forces. Victor had been a medical student before he joined and while in the army worked recovering the wounded. In December 1937, he is assigned to an ambulance team responsible for giving first aid. Victor’s team includes a driver by the name of Aitor Ibarra. At one point during the war Victor revives a dying soldier in a most heroic and unusual way. While in the army, Victor falls madly in love with Elisabeth Eidenbenz, a Swiss volunteer for the Association to Aid Children in War. She is not interested, but both Aitor and Elisabeth become very important in Victor’s future.
Victor’s father, Professor Marcel Lluis Dalmau, is a music teacher and his mother, Carme, a chain smoking teacher. As Lluis Dalmau lay dying, he tells Victor that they have lost the war and tells him to go to France until things calm down.
In a totally different segment of the story, enter Roser Bruguera. Roser is seven years old and shepherding goats when she meets Don Santiago, a wealthy professor. Santiago quickly understands that Roser is a special child who will never be able to realize her potential due to the extreme poverty of her existence. He takes her in and soon discovers that she has innate musical talent. She spends the rest of her childhood living in Guzman’s mansion and at the age of 15, Guzman “installed her in a guest house for young Catholic ladies in Barcelona so that she could continue her music studies.” When he decides that he does not like the person she is becoming he stops supporting her. Her music teacher, Marcel Lluis Dalmau takes her in and makes her part of the family. While living with the Dalmau family, Roser meets and falls in love with Victor’s brother, Guillem, and becomes pregnant. Guillem dies in the war and never knows about his child.
After Lluis’ death and it becomes clear that the republican democracy had lost to Franco’s supporters, Victor arranges for his mother, Carme and very pregnant Roser to be transported to France. His pal Aitor has a motorcycle with a side car and agrees to transport them. They move slowly toward France along with thousands of other refugees. Carme is certain that she is a burden and disappears and they cannot find her. Aitor and Roser find their way to France without Carme. France is not exactly welcoming and Roser and Aitor are placed in camps.
Elisabeth Eidenbenz gets Roser out of the camp and into a safe home where she has her baby, ultimately named Marcel. Meanwhile, Victor is helping to transport the sick and injured into France. Victor finds Roser and they decide to take a refugee ship, the Winnepeg, to Chile. But in order to go together, they are required to marry. The captain of the boat is anti-immigrant and the bureaucrats that meet the boat are also anti-immigrant. “but…when [they] came face to face with the individual refugees-men, women, and children-[their] views changed.” Pablo Neruda, who is 34 years old and “was considered the best poet of his generation, which was some feat as in Chile poets flourished like weeds,” arranged for the Winnepeg to transport the Spanish refugees to Chile.
Meanwhile, the very wealthy Isidio del Solar, his wife, Laura and their daughter, Ofelia, are on a pleasure cruise from Chile to Europe, where Isidio is doing business. Despite her lavish life (“She had given birth to six children without ever having changed a diaper or prepared a bottle…”) Laura does not care for her husband. Back in Chile, their son, Filipe, is in charge of taking care of the house, although their housekeeper, Juana Nancuchero, is really in charge. Felipe and his father do not see eye to eye on Chilean politics, as Felipe is on the left and his father is far on the right.
Roser and Victor arrive in Chile and are invited to live with Felipe. They meet the entire del Solar family and Victor falls madly in love with Ofelia. Their mutual infatuation creates a very interesting story line, but you need to read the book to learn about it!
Victor goes to medical school and develops a relationship, through a mutual love of chess, with Salvador Allende, who at the time they meet is the socialist party leader and health minister. Victor also goes into business with an older man, Jordi Moline, and they open a bar named the Winnepeg. Roser asks Jordi to try to find Carme and Aitor. Aitor is located in Venezuela, and as regards Carme, well, read the book!
Allende becomes the president and Victor and Allende continue to play chess. On September 11, 1973, a military coup, led by General Augusto Pinochet, takes place. Victor is arrested and placed in a concentration camp, where he spends 11 months, before Roser is able to get him out. The family flees to Venezuela, where they live for nine years before returning to Chile to live out their lives.
There is so much going on in this novel and this review is just a piece of the story. The story has many twists and turns, some predictable and others not so much. Allende tells the story with her usual wry wit and keen observations. The novel provides a great historical perspective with parallels to today and the characters and their lives are moving and relatable. Five stars! You can reserve this novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.