Before I started blogging, I read lots of books that fell into a sort of black hole. I might remember that I read them and have a vague recollection of my feelings about them, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything of value about them. Zorro by Isabel Allende is one of those books. I remembered, of course, that it was about the legendary hero Zorro, but the only impression that stuck with me was a sense that I was impatient with it on my first reading. Now that I’ve listened to the audiobook, I remember why that impression stuck with me, as I felt the same way this time.

Allende’s novel is Zorro’s origin story. It’s a grand historical epic that begins in the territory of Alta California; moves to 19th-century Spain, the high seas, and New Orleans; and returns to Alta California for a final showdown. Through his adventures, the young Diego de la Vega learns the skills and picks up the tricks that turn him into Zorro, the heroic outlaw who seeks justice for the oppressed. It’s a good story that shows how many disparate forces—Native Americans, a good-hearted monk, Spanish sword fighters, Romani circus performers, pirates, and gamblers—turned Diego into Zorro. But it also felt a little too much like Allende was checking off boxes, trying to explain each element of the Zorro legend. Why a white shirt with billowing sleeves? Because Diego liked the look of pirate garb. How did Zorro become a virtuoso acrobat? By playing around on a ship as he traveled to Spain and then refining his skills at the Romani circus. Sometimes the connections are heavy-handed, but I did like how Diego’s background was shown to be so special that only he could come up with the Zorro identity.

As entertaining as many of Diego’s adventures are, they too often felt like diversions from the main story. The Zorro story is a California story, yet this novel spends ages and ages and ages in Spain. The Spanish section is necessary, because that’s where Diego becomes educated, hones his fencing skill, and meets his future nemesis, but it goes on too long. By the time Diego leaves Spain, the pirate adventure and sojourn in New Orleans, which were not so very long, felt like annoying obstacles keeping readers from the main story in California. I loved that Allende gave the Zorro legend roots in so many cultures and locales, but there were times when a nod to an inspiration would have done as well as a detailed description and character-building adventure.

When the novel eventually returns to California, the story picks up and then barrels through to the end. The final confrontation with Rafael Moncada is rushed, which was a disappointment after the detailed accounts of earlier events in which Zorro was still finding his identity. After spending hours watching Diego become Zorro, I wanted to see him be Zorro for a little longer.

The novel is rich in historical detail, and it was fun to see the different threads of history weaved together in this one legendary figure. But my initial impression that there’s too much going on remains on this second reading. I’ve enjoyed all of Allende’s books that I’ve read, but her books never quite make it onto my all-time favorite lists. I gather that the ones I’ve read—Zorro, Portrait in Sepia, Daughter of Fortune, House of the Spirits, and My Invented Country—are not widely considered her best. So it may just be a matter of time before I get to Allende work that completely bowls me over. I’d welcome suggestions for the next one to try.

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12 Responses to Zorro

  1. My only experience with Allende was The Infinite Plan and I Hated it with a capital H. So perhaps not that one! I have a friend who loves her, and she is always saying that I’m not allowed to judge Allende until I’ve read Eva Luna. She thinks that is her best book.

  2. gaskella says:

    I’ve only read a couple of Allende’s books – Daughter of Fortune is one, can’t remember the other (!). It’s fair to say I admired rather than loved them, but they don’t stick in my mind other than Daughter of Fortune’s epic/Western feel. Eva Luna is in my TBR though, along with Zorro and a couple of others.

    • Teresa says:

      Liked rather than loved is what I’d say for myself. I did love the setting of Daughter of Fortune; the mix of cultures along with the Western feeling stuck with me. It might be my favorite of the ones I’ve read, but Portrait in Sepia was good too.

  3. Amanda says:

    I actually really love a non-fiction book Allende wrote called Aphrodite, about the connection between food and sensuality. A lot of her own personality comes through, and she just seems like a fanciful, funny broad you’d love to spend time with over a dinner table.

    • Teresa says:

      I hadn’t heard of that one at all. I’ll look into it. The one memoir that I read was mostly serious, but I did like the bits of her personality that shone through.

  4. I read and loved Inés my Soul by Allende.This is the story of one of the most important women in the conquest of Chile by the Spanish. What I liked about this book, and what made me read it was this quote that was in the Portuguese edition summary : “I suppose they will put statues of me in town squares, and that there will be, certainly, roads and cities with my name, as there will be with Pedro of Valdivia’s and other conquers’ names, but hundreds of women that struggled so hard to found cities, while their husbands fought, will be, almost certainly, forgotten. (my tranlation)”.

    • Teresa says:

      I remember wanting to read that one when it came out, but I never got around to it and forgot all about it. That quote is promising, so I’ll add it to my possibilities list.

  5. Bookish Hobbit says:

    The story about Diego’s parents is the best part of this novel, I thought. I was disappointed in it.

  6. Marga says:

    My favorite of her novels is Eva Luna, but there’s also a book of short-stories based on it, The stories of Eva Luna, which is even better. I also enjoyed The house of the spirits. Of her non-fiction, Paula, which is about the life and death of her daughter, is heartbreaking.

    • Teresa says:

      Based on all the comments, there’s a good chance I’ll make Eva Luna my next Allende, and I’ll keep the stories in mind as a follow up. I can imagine she’d be a good short story writer because I often like her scenes better than her overarching narritives. And I’ve heard great things about Paula as well.

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