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Isabel Allende’s family informed latest novel

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Updated: July 17, 2013 6:03AM

Writing her new novel was a different kind of challenge for Isabel Allende. “Maya’s Notebook” (Harper, $27.99), the story of 19-year-old Maya Vidal, is not based in historical research, nor is it a tome reliant on big doses of magic realism.

The story of Maya, who roams from Berkeley to Las Vegas to the Chiloe archipelago off Chile’s southern coast, reads like a crossover to young adult fiction. It is a contemporary story, Allende’s first set in the present time, written under the influence of her grandchildren, who were all teenagers at the time she was working on the novel.

“I was hearing their voices, their problems, their dramas,” Allende recalled during a recent visit to Chicago. “I was immersed in their day-to-day world and sort of appalled at all the dangers, all the risks that kids confront these days. And then watching my son trying to protect them — especially my youngest granddaughter, who never got into the kind of trouble Maya does but she certainly could have. She had the boyfriend from hell, and we were terrified for her.”

When Maya’s beloved grandfather dies, she goes off the deep end into a downward spiral of drugs, alcohol and crime. On the run from the police and a gang of assassins, Maya’s escape to Chiloe is aided by her grandmother Nini, a force to be reckoned with.

The drug-related scenes are shockingly real and visceral. Allende says she didn’t go far to research this aspect: Her three stepchildren are addicted and two have died: Jennifer in 1994 and 35-year-old Harley in early April.

“I’ve seen addiction very close,” she said, sadly. “I’ve seen the devastation for the victim and everybody around them. Everyone suffers. Harley was clean for many years, but the demon of addiction was just lurking in the corner waiting.”

“Maya’s Notebook” has a raw and genuine power as Allende allows Maya’s journey of self-discovery to unfold in sometimes brutal fashion. Yet, the author said she is seeing more college age readers at book events, and high school libraries are recommending the book.

“Although this book is not specifically written for young adults, it is their story,” she said.

“I think today, kids can read anything. It’s a fantasy of the parents that we can protect them from information when it’s all at their fingertips.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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