A Long Petal of the Sea
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Originally published in 2019, Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel is a work of historical fiction. A master storyteller, Allende has published over 20 books and won multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The first edition was published in Spanish; the English edition, published in 2020, was translated by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.
Beginning in the last years of the Spanish Civil War, the novel uses the characters Victor Dalmau and Roser Bruguera to depict the pain of war and exile and the hope of new beginnings. Through their relationship, Victor and Roser expose the true meaning of love, as their love for each other strengthens throughout their lives. Exiled from Spain in 1939, Victor and Roser are again exiled from their home in Chile years later. Both times, reactionary forces overturned democratically elected leaders via force, and Victor and Roser stood with democracy. Ultimately, the pair return to Chile, where they have made their home when the political atmosphere allows it. Their story explains what it means to belong to family and community. Originally Catalonian Spanish, Victor and Roser become Chilean.
Victor and Roser’s marriage begins as one of convenience, not love. Roser was in love with Victor’s brother Guillem, who died fighting for the Republican cause. As a medic serving on the front lines of battle, Victor must stay in Spain until the bitter end of the war. When it becomes obvious that the Republican forces have no chance of victory against Francisco Franco’s right-wing forces, Victor asks his friend Aitor Ibarra to take his mother Carme and Roser, who is pregnant with Guillem’s child, to France. Aitor gets Roser and himself across the border under dangerous winter conditions, but Carme, who feared she was slowing their progress, slipped away from them early in the trip.
In France, they receive no welcome and are instead placed in concentration camps. Victor meets the same fate when he leaves Spain with the last of the wounded. With the help of a friend of Victor, Roser is allowed to leave the camp and safely gives birth to a boy, Marcel. As a medic, Victor has leeway to escape his camp and finds Roser. With no place for them in France, Victor and Roser seek refuge on the poet Pablo Neruda’s ship of hope, the Winnipeg, bound for Chile. Told they must be a family to get passage, Victor and Roser marry in name only for Marcel’s sake. Over time, their marriage of convenience becomes one of love. From the beginning, though, Victor is committed to caring for Marcel and Roser.
Once in Chile, their lives intersect with the wealthy del Solar family. Impressed with Victor and Roser, Felipe del Solar, who is young and progressive at this time, opens his home to them. His parents, Isidoro and Laura, are conservative and sympathetic to Franco, not the refugees whom they consider to be atheists and communists. Yet at the urging of their trusted housekeeper, Juana Nancucheo, Isidoro invites the Dalmaus to their Christmas celebration. It is there that Victor meets one of the del Solars’ daughters, Ofelia. The attraction is immediate and intense, and given Victor’s social class and marital status, completely forbidden.
Meanwhile, Roser, a talented musician, easily finds work teaching piano and performing. Victor initially works in a bar but, with the help of Felipe’s connection to health minister Salvador Allende, Victor completes his medical studies. Influenced by his experience in the war of reviving an exposed heart, he becomes a cardiologist. In short, Victor and Roser make new lives in Chile and contribute to society.
A chance meeting between Ofelia and Victor results in a passionate affair, which leaves Ofelia pregnant. When Ofelia’s parents learn of her pregnancy, they summon their priest, Father Urbina. He arranges for Ofelia to leave Santiago, give birth at a convent, and give up the baby for adoption. When Ofelia decides to keep the baby, Father Urbina schemes with her mother Laura to take the baby without Ofelia’s knowledge and tell her the child died. Ofelia does not disclose Victor’s identity as the baby’s father and ends her relationship with him. After this breakup, Victor and Roser begin to have marital relations, though their marriage remains open. Roser has affairs, including a long-term one with Aitor Ibarra, but she never considers leaving Victor, just as he never considered leaving her.
On Marcel’s 10th birthday, Carme gets in touch with the family. Victor and Roser travel to see her, and she moves to Chile in a year’s time. Meanwhile, Salvador Allende aims to become president. A democratic socialist, he seeks to spread the wealth monopolized by a small percentage in Chile and to nationalize certain industries. He is elected president in 1970. Recalling the events in Spain in the 1930s, Carme worries that the conservatives will not accept this electoral result. She dies shortly after Allende’s election. In 1973, a military coup led by Pinochet overthrows the regime and kills Allende. In the ensuing repression, Victor is arrested.
At 60 years old, Victor finds himself back in a brutal concentration camp where he is beaten, tortured, and humiliated. His fortunes change when the camp’s commandant has a heart attack and he acts quickly to save the commandant’s life. Shortly thereafter, Victor is released. Fearing rearrest, Victor and Roser flee to Venezuela and are once again exiles. When Franco finally dies in 1975, Victor and Roser return to Spain only to find it unrecognizable to them. They no longer belong there and want to return to Chile, but they settle on Venezuela for the time being.
Late into the Pinochet regime, Victor is allowed back into Chile. Victor, Roser, and Marcel, who is now an engineer, all decide to return. While Pinochet remains in power, Victor is forbidden to return to the public hospital, but his standing greatly improves when Pinochet is out of power. Sadly, he then learns that Roser has terminal cancer. Roser accepts the news and urges Victor to find love after her death.
Devastated, Victor instead plans to spend the rest of his life alone with his animals. Just then, Ingrid Schnake visits his house and explains that she is his biological daughter. On her death bed, Laura del Solar was overcome with guilt for lying to Ofelia and asked Juana to find her daughter. Juana took her promise to do so very seriously, and she tracked this woman down with Felipe’s help. Ofelia, who had little interest in this daughter, finally disclosed Victor’s identity. Victor is thrilled to have a daughter and three grandchildren, and shares the news with Marcel. Just as Roser had, Ingrid encourages Victor to keep living, which must include love. After she leaves, Victor goes to his neighbor, whom both Marcel and Roser had labeled a good partner for him. He resolves to live and love, which are one in the same.