Maya's Notebook

By Isabel Allende
Published on April 23rd 2013
Published by Harper
Source: ARC from publisher
Neglected by her parents, nineteen-year-old Maya Nidal grows up in a rambling old house in Berkeley with her grandparents. Her grandmother, Nidia, affectionately known as Nini, is a force of nature--a woman whose formidable strength helped her build a new life after emigrating from Chile in 1973. Popo, Maya's grandfather, is an African American astronomer and professor--a gentle man whose solid, comforting presence helps calm the turbulence of Maya's adolescence.

When Popo dies of cancer, Maya goes completely off the rails. With her girlfriends Maya turns to drugs, alcohol, and petty crime, eventually bottoming out in Las Vegas. Lost in a dangerous underworld, she is caught in the crosshairs of warring forces--a gang of assassins, the police, the FBI, and Interpol. Her one chance for survival is Nini, who helps her escape to a remote island off the coast of Chile. Here Maya tries to make sense of the past, unravels mysterious truths about life and her family, and embarks on her greatest adventure: the journey into her own soul.
On reflection, Maya's Notebook is a quiet story punctuated by big moments of loudness.  The story is written from Maya's perspective as she writes about her life in a journal.  It's half told in the present day, following her arrival in Chile, and half told as flashbacks, going back to Maya's childhood and upbringing, all the way up to meet with the present day.  Telling the story out of order like that can be somewhat annoying, but overall it works here as we are let in, piece by piece, to the turmoil in Maya's life that caused her to be sent all the way to Chile.

I had a somewhat hard time getting into the story at first, but once I got used to the writing and got a little more immersed in Maya's world, it was a fairly fast read.  The writing can sometimes be overly flowery, and Maya's dialogue doesn't always ring true for the way her character is described, but I chalk some of that up to differences in translation, as I believe the book was originally written in Spanish.  The story can be slow at times, especially when Maya is in Chile, putting her life back together, and even the fast paced scenes back in Las Vegas are told with the advantage of hindsight, as Maya reflects on what happened to her.  They're tense, but you know that she makes it out relatively okay, or she wouldn't be telling her story to the reader now.

Maya is an interesting character -- she's only around 20 or so in the present day section of the book, but her personality fluctuates wildly in maturity.  Sometimes she is stone cold, sometimes she's oblivious, sometimes she acts out in inappropriate ways, and sometimes she's exactly like a giddy teenager, for example, when she falls head over heels in love with a guy who is passing through Chiloe, her small Chilean town.  In other books, I'd probably be annoyed by this, but for Maya, who has had an unstable childhood and some very complicated teenage years, her acting out and mood swings make sense from a psychological standpoint.  You do find yourself rooting for Maya, and for all of the people she grows to love in Chiloe, as she slowly becomes less stubborn and lets people in to her life.

I would probably classify this book as adult fiction with a young adult main character, or at least recommend it for more mature readers. This is both due to the subject matter and the pace that the story is told at. I don't mean to underestimate teen readers, but the tone and feel of the book feels much more "adult/general fiction" than young adult or new adult.  There is a lot of violence, drug/alcohol use/abuse, and sex/prostitution in the story, so it isn't terribly appropriate for younger readers.

For some words from author Isabel Allende on the book and some of its main themes, check out this quick video from her:

And while you're at it, check out these awesome trailers for the book, made by San Jose State University students.

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