At 19, Maya Vidal, the California-born heroine of Isabel Allende's florid, frenzied and intermittently entertaining novel Maya's Notebook, has already busted out of a wilderness academy for troubled teens in Oregon, been raped and beaten by a trucker, worked as a girl Friday for a drug dealer/counterfeiter and done some $10 hooking in Las Vegas.
As dire as that sounds, there's not all that much to worry about in this Dear Diary-style narrative. Allende introduces Maya after she's cleaned up and is hiding out off the grid. Her grandmother Nini has decreed that the girl, on the run from the FBI, Interpol and the gang back in Vegas, is not safe in her hometown of Berkeley, Calif. She sends Maya to stay with her old friend, an anthropologist in his 70s named Manuel Arias, on the Chilean island of Chiloe. This move makes for a bit of counterpoint, since Nini herself fled Chile and ended up in Berkeley — after the military overthrow of socialist President Salvador Allende (the author's first cousin once removed; it's always a little meta with Isabel).
"I've dropped into his life like a bomb," Maya writes in the notebook Nini pressed on her at the airport. Maya is tall, skinny, blond, blue-eyed — Allende makes her sound ready for the pages of Vogue— prone to sass and eager for attention. She shares Manuel's tiny house, built on stilts like all the homes of Chiloe and without any interior doors. Though she needles Manuel, who's a taciturn sort (harboring dark secrets that anyone with a decent sense of plotting will guess at easily), he's admirably tolerant of the American girl who's invaded his space.
The place is curative, of course. "Here, in the south of the world, the rain makes everything lush and fertile," Maya writes. The residents of Chiloe, who tend toward the superstitious, blend together into a kind, welcoming mass (except for the man who regularly rapes his offspring). There's some chance that Maya's enemies may track her down, but as threats go, it's fairly mild; Nini and Manuel are both experts at disappearing acts. Maya worries less about her enemies than whether Daniel, the sexy, soulful American backpacker who arrives in Chiloe halfway through the book, may have trouble trusting her. "It's hard to blame him," Maya writes in her notebook. "A story like mine could scare off the bravest guy."
Duly noted, although as a woman of only middling bravery, I myself was not scared by Maya's story, mostly because I didn't believe a word of it. It's not that the sequence of events isn't reasonable for a girl on a downward spiral — spurred by the death from cancer of her beloved grandfather — but that the voice is so implausible. The hyper-articulate present-tense Maya who is prone to old-fashioned language (she notes the "lapidary" phrasing of her scuzzy Vegas boss) is completely at odds with the passive victim in the flashbacks. Maya may be a lively character, but she never feels remotely real.
Daniel, who conveniently happens to have just finished a psychiatric residency in Seattle, tells her she has abandonment issues (right before he licks her "like candy"). He might not have needed a degree to come up with this theory; when Maya was just a few days old, her mother, a Danish air hostess, dropped Maya off with Nini and Popo, and renounced her parental rights. Maya's father, a pilot, visited regularly but mostly left the parenting to his saintly stepfather and firebrand mother. Nini, the book's most vivid character, is somewhat distracted by her activism among the Berkeley do-gooders, but Popo, a dreamy African-American astronomer who oozes Morgan Freeman-style fabulousness from every pore, was always there for Maya, until his untimely demise.
In terms of the outrageous and/or harrowing circumstances she puts her heroine in, Allende could almost be borrowing from the wild adventures on drug-themed cable series like Breaking Bad or Weeds, but without the sense of irony. Maya's recovery from drug addict to chatty, affectionate teen may be just another magical-realist miracle for the famed author of The House of the Spirits. Some of the character's incongruity likely stems from the fact that this is the first time Allende has tried writing in a youthful, contemporary voice.
Allende knows something of what it means to have substance abusers in one's life; publicizing her memoir Paula, in 2007, she told The Guardian that she was shocked when she discovered that her second husband's three children were all drug addicts. Their struggles must have been brutal to observe. But she approaches the horror of Maya's tailspin with a curious lack of urgency. Like any soap opera, Maya's Notebook feels cloaked in the reassurance that these are all just stories — even for Maya: "While I was underground, like a seed or a tuber, another Maya Vidal struggled to emerge; slender filaments seeking moisture arose, then roots like fingers seeking nourishment, and finally a tenacious stem and leaves seeking light." This heroine blooms, but despite all the dirt Allende piles around her, Maya feels like an artificial flower.
Mary Pols reviews movies for Time Magazine and Time.com and blogs on the MSN Page-Turner books blog. She is the author of the memoir Accidentally on Purpose: The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother.