Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks Named Pfoho Faculty Deans


Harvard SEAS Faculty Reflect on Outgoing Dean, Say Successor Should Be Top Scholar


South Korean President Yoon Talks Nuclear Threats From North Korea at Harvard IOP Forum


Harvard University Police Advisory Board Appoints Undergrad Rep After Yearlong Vacancy


After Meeting with Harvard Admin on ‘Swatting’ Attack, Black Student Leaders Say Demands Remain Unanswered

‘A Long Petal of the Sea’: Another Long Tale of Gut-Wrenching Events

3.5 stars

Cover art of "A Long Petal of the Sea."
Cover art of "A Long Petal of the Sea." By Courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group
By Kelsey Chen, Crimson Staff Writer

Well-known for her critically acclaimed novel “The House of the Spirits,” Isabel Allende is back with another novel spanning an impressively large geography and time. “A Long Petal of the Sea” follows the Dalmau family and their friends as they travel across the globe, first as refugees departing Spain under Francisco Franco’s regime, then as exiles to Chile and Venezuela. The novel itself is undeniably brilliant and rich — it is, however, just like “The House of the Spirits,” a war of attrition to read.

It is a protracted endeavor to read a novel that encompasses as much content and seeks to cover as much ground as Allende’s “A Long Petal of the Sea.” Readers of “The House of the Spirits” may remember a novel that tracked generations of women and their countless happenings with a tireless and seemingly never-ending narrative. The same type of storytelling happens in “A Long Petal of the Sea”: Allende, once again, writes in her typical style — as a narrator, recording a long string of continuous events, and as a historian, gathering scattered details to form a long-winded and tiresome story.

The novel follows the adventure and romance of Victor Dalmau and his wife, Roser, who carries the child of Victor’s dead brother. Married to facilitate their emigration from Spain as refugees and to ensure that they will be allowed to stay together, Victor and Roser’s lives undergo tremendous trials and momentous upheaval as a result of the political turmoil of Franco’s regime, France’s hostility towards Spanish refugees, and Augusto Pinochet’s military coup in Chile. Throughout all of this chaos, one thing holds steady — the quiet dedication and love Victor and Roser have for each other and the other members of their fractured family, sundered and scattered across the globe.

“A Long Petal of the Sea” is rich with historical details that must have taken an enormous effort to unearth. Unfortunately, the resulting mosaic of historical fact and narrative embellishment is an overwhelming wave of information: Pages on pages inundate the reader with irrelevant historical details and lists of events. The book itself feels like one massive list. Despite the beauty of Allende’s writing and the emotional impact of the characters’ lives and struggles, the lingering impact of this book is not a reaction at the content, but an unbearable exhaustion at having to wade through 314 pages of unimportant banalities to arrive at the important thematic conclusion of the novel.

This is not to say that the work isn’t beautiful — it most certainly is. It is a remarkable feat to create a cohesive story out of the fragmentation and historical fracturing and inconsistency of the time period that Allende chooses to write about. But, just as the circle of Victor Dalmau’s past love Ofelia del Solar “closed neatly…without leaving any ashes,” so too, do all of the plotlines of this novel come to a neat close.

The cleanliness by which Allende’s story reaches its resolution appears, at first, counterintuitive to much of the thematic messaging of the text. After all, “Entropy is the natural law of the universe, everything tends toward disorder, to break down, to disperse. People get lost… feelings fade, and forgetfulness slips into lives like mist.” Yet there is something distinctly poignant in Allende’s ability to render form within the absolute chaos of the lives of the characters. Despite being a collection of fragmentary, scattered pieces of lives and history, out of this chaos emerges a definitive sense of resolution and beauty. Perhaps, then, this form is not at all at odds with the content of “A Long Petal of the Sea”: Allende may wish to induce a realization of the paradoxical order, purpose, and beauty that emerge out of the absolute entropy of the universe.

But the beauty of Allende’s message is polluted by the sheer frustration of the amount of useless words that must be read in order to grasp a rather simplistic thematic conclusion. Allende would do well to remind herself of her own words: “Governments come and go, but poets remain.”

Though historical details are important in world-building and rendering a multifaceted, rich story, “A Long Petal of the Sea”s oversaturation with unnecessary details about the comings and goings of governments obfuscates the poetry of Allende’s words.

—Staff writer Kelsey Chen can be reached at

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.