Title: Maya’s Notebook
Author: Isabel Allende
Narrator: Maria Cabezas
Audiobook Length: 14 hours, 40 minutes
Origins: Harper Audio
Bottom Line: Touching story but better in print than via audio
“This contemporary coming-of-age story centers upon Maya Vidal, a remarkable teenager abandoned by her parents. Maya grew up in a rambling old house in Berkeley with her grandmother Nini, whose formidable strength helped her build a new life after emigrating from Chile in 1973 with a young son, and her grandfather Popo, a gentle African-American astronomer.When Popo dies, Maya goes off the rails. Along with a circle of girlfriends known as “the vampires,” she turns to drugs, alcohol, and petty crime–a downward spiral that eventually leads to Las Vegas and a dangerous underworld, with Maya caught between 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. In the care of her grandmother’s old friend, Manuel Arias, and surrounded by strange new acquaintances, Maya begins to record her story in her notebook, as she tries to make sense of her past and unravel the mysteries of her family and her own life.”
Thoughts: Maya Vidal grew up in the most unusual but loving of circumstances. While abandoned by her mother and all but ignored by her father, her grandparents – the feisty and formidable Nini, and her adoring, more deliberate Popo – provide all the love and adventure any young girl could want. Devastated after her Popo’s slow death, Maya seeks to soothe her grief through any means necessary – alcohol and drugs being her favorite tools. Just as she starts to get her life back on track, she takes a detour that places her in the seediest sections of Las Vegas, working with the town’s prominent drug dealers. Along the way, she manages to upset her fellow “coworkers”, the FBI, the police, and other government agencies, forcing her to disappear. While hiding in Chile, Maya discovers more about her new country, her family, and herself. Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende is as much about self-discovery and healing as it is about families and love.
Maya’s story unfolds slowly, almost infuriatingly so. The heart of the narrative is the mysterious reasons behind her flight to Chile, and when the story concentrates on that aspect of her past, the pacing picks up and a reader’s interest increases. Unfortunately, these most interesting elements of the narrative are only told in short bursts, with the rest of the novel focusing on her life in Chile and her growing relationship with Manuel. These details end up being important in a Dickensian fashion but pale in comparison to the tragic and shocking experiences she faces on the way to and in Las Vegas.
Maya’s voice waffles between a snide, street-wise teenager to a more contrite, gentler, and surprisingly younger young adult. Perhaps this is the fault of the audiobook, but the transition is jarring at times, especially when her dialogue involves sarcasm or rough language. Her use of curse words and other crude phrasing, while fitting for a former homeless drug addict, is unsettling given the more mature, calmer mannerisms she exhibits throughout most of the novel. It is an effective reminder of what she has had to overcome, but it does make it difficult to mesh these two very different aspects of her personality.
The biggest surprise is the fact that the story is not just about Maya. While hers is the key plot, the story delves into Manuel’s past as Ms. Allende takes the time to make not-so-surreptitious political statements about Chile’s dictatorial history. The history lesson is fascinating, albeit odd, given that the story is really about Maya and not Manuel, and the addition of Ms. Allende’s political viewpoints is slightly off-putting. She does eventually connect the two plots in what is supposed to be a significant plot twist that ends up being less surprising than she planned, but it still feels too much like a chance to expound upon her views rather than as an essential element of the story.
Maria Cabezas has a pleasant, young voice and is a decent narrator, but she does not fit the novel. Her voice is too soft and innocent and does not exhibit the battle-worn world-weariness that befits Maya’s rough life. She also speaks very quietly and soothingly, all but lulling readers into sleep. Again, given everything Maya has overcome, Ms. Cabezas’ voice is just too lovely. Also, the novel is told as a series of journal entries and scribblings into notebooks. The audiobook format lessens the importance of the epistolary format, which is a huge part of the novel. Between Ms. Cabezas’ less-than-ideal narration and the derailing of the epistolary format, Maya’s Notebook would make a better book to read than for listening.
Ms. Allende does write beautifully. Her descriptions of Chile are vibrant, while Maya all but sparkles. She weaves her story carefully, very much like Charles Dickens, in that each element, however irrelevant is appears, becomes important at a later point in the story. This makes the details just as important as the key points and tends to slow down the pace. Since the story is slow to begin with, this can make for tedious reading, but the patient reader is rewarded in the end with a complex tale of family, forgiveness, and self-discovery.