Sunday, January 2, 2011

Portrait in Sepia by Isabelle Allende

Isabel Allende is one of my favorite authors. She combines magical realism with beautiful, poignant storytelling, fascinating characters, and history lessons about Chile and other places.
I am currently listening to Portrait in Sepia on CD and was taken with her description of the protagonist as she was going through adolescence.  I think it fits into this blog beautifully - this young woman sounds very aware of the changes taking place inside of her - much more so than I was.  I went through puberty awkwardly unaware of the changes to my body.  Ever the mind using the body just to get around, I just didn't notice what was happening.  But listen to this woman's experience:

Severo del Valle [the protagonist's uncle] showed up in the midst of  chaos, bearded and caked with  mud, looking for his wife, whom he hadn't seen since January.  Nivea [his wife] threw her arms around her husband's neck, and that was the first time in my life I had witnessed a long mouth-to-mouth kiss.  My grandmother, befuddled, tried to distract me, but to no avail, and I still remember the enormous impact that kiss had on me; it marked the beginning of the volcanic transformation of adolescence.  Within a few months I had become a stranger; I couldn't recognize the self-absorbed girl I was turning into.  I saw myself trapped in a rebellious and demanding body that was growing and affirming itself, suffering and palpitating.  It seemed to me that I was nothing but an extension of my uterus, that cavern I imagined as a bloody hollow in which humors fermented and terrible and unknown flora were developing.  I couldn't forget the hallucinatory, candlelit scene of a squatting Nivea giving birth to her babies, of her gargantuan belly studded with a protruding umbilicus, her thin arms clutching the ropes that hung from the ceiling.  I would burst into tears without any apparent cause, and I suffered fits of uncontrollable anger, or woke so exhausted I couldn't get out of bed....  I would wake up clinging to my pillow, wishing desperately that someone would kiss me the way Severo del Valle had kissed his wife.  I was melting with heat outside and freezing inside; I couldn't settle down enough to read or study but would run through the garden, whirling like someone possessed to keep from howling.  I walked into the pond fully clothed, wading through water lilies and frightening the goldfish.  Soon I discovered the most sensitive points of my body, and would hide and fondle myself, not understanding why what was supposed to be a sin was so calming.  I am going mad, I concluded, terrified, like so many girls who end up being hysterical, but I didn't dare talk about it with my grandmother.  She was also changing; while my body was flowering, hers was drying up, beset by mysterious ills she didn't discuss with anyone, not even her doctor, faithful to her theory that all that was needed to hold decrepitude at bay was to keep going and not make old lady noises.
I think her last point that she wasn't able to talk to her grandmother about what was happening is interesting - her grandmother was apparently going through menopause while she was going through adolescence.  Two women in the same house going through pretty extreme  hormonal changes.  No wonder mothers and daughters go through a lot around that time!

What was your adolescence like?  What sort of changes were you aware of?  Were they as dramatic as this woman's or more subtle?

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