An instant New York Times bestseller, In the Midst of Winter is about three very different people who are brought together in a mesmerizing story that offers “a timely message about immigration and the meaning of home” (People).
During the biggest Brooklyn snowstorm in living memory, Richard Bowmaster, a lonely university professor in his sixties, hits the car of Evelyn Ortega, a young undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, and what at first seems an inconvenience takes a more serious turn when Evelyn comes to his house, seeking help. At a loss, the professor asks his tenant, Lucia Maraz, a fellow academic from Chile, for her advice.
As these three lives intertwine, each will discover truths about how they have been shaped by the tragedies they witnessed, and Richard and Lucia will find unexpected, long overdue love. Allende returns here to themes that have propelled some of her finest work: political injustice, the art of survival, and the essential nature of—and our need for—love.
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About the Author
Hometown:San Rafael, California
Date of Birth:August 2, 1942
Place of Birth:Lima, Peru
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In the Midst of Winter includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A blizzard in New York City brings together three strikingly different people, each burdened with a difficult past. Lucia, an aging Chilean writer who has survived political exile, disease, and betrayal, is marooned with her dog in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. Richard, an academic chairman at NYU, is a broken man haunted by guilt for his fatal failures as a husband and father. And Evelyn, a brave young Guatemalan woman, is an undocumented home health aide who fled her native country due to gang violence, which claimed the lives of her two brothers and very nearly destroyed her own.
Over the course of several days, these three—each a misfit in a different way—are forced by circumstances into a rare level of intimacy. As the result of a shocking crime, they depart on a precarious epic journey that reveals their painful inner demons and ultimately enables them to forge a tentative peace with their pasts.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Each of the three main characters—Lucia, Evelyn, and Richard—experiences some kind of isolation in their present life. The book begins with Lucia physically isolated in her apartment during a snowstorm. In what other ways is she isolated? How is her isolation different from Evelyn’s? And from Richard’s?
2. Evelyn comes to the United States as a refugee fleeing violence. Compare her experience entering the country with that of other immigrants you know of or have read about. Why did they leave their native countries, and what were their first experiences as immigrants? Did you find any aspects of Evelyn’s journey surprising? It is said that the United States is a country of immigrants, and that immigrants made this country great. Do you agree? Why or why not? Did this book change the way you think about immigrants? If so, how?
3. Many immigrants in the United States currently work in caretaker jobs: as nannies taking care of small children, or as home health aides caring for the sick, elderly, or dying. Do you know of any immigrants in these kinds of jobs? Do they encounter any difficulties similar to Evelyn’s? How do Frankie’s parents treat Evelyn? Why does she seem “invisible“ to Frankie’s father?
4. Evelyn‘s relationship with Frankie is very special, and reveals a lot about her character. Why is she so successful at caring for him? In what ways does she expand his horizons? Do you know of someone who works with people who are physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged? Do they share any of Evelyn‘s character traits?
5. When Evelyn leaves her native village, she tells her grandmother Concepcion, “Just as I am going, Grandma, so I will return.” Compare Evelyn’s relationship with her grandmother to her relationship with her mother, Miriam. What positive things has each of them given to Evelyn?
6. Lucia loses her brother during the political turmoil in Chile during the early 1970s and is forced to flee the country, eventually becoming an exile in Canada. What qualities does she have that help her face her life as an exile? Do you know of anyone who is an exile? What special difficulties do they share? How do the challenges of Lucia’s exile compare with Evelyn’s challenges as a refugee?
7. People and animals share their lives. Compare the companionship between Richard and the four cats and between Lucia and Marcelo. How do their interactions reflect each of their personalities?
8. Richard and his wife, Anita, go through the devastating experience of losing their baby son. How do their reactions to this tragedy differ? And how do these differences ultimately determine the fate of Bibi and of their marriage?
9. Anita’s family has always been very tight-knit, giving her a sense of well-being and support. How does this compare with Richard’s upbringing? He comes to resent Anita‘s family after the tragedy. Why do you think this is so? Is he fair in resenting their efforts?
10. When Richard arrives in New York with Anita, and his friend Horacio sees the state she is in, he says to Richard, “Make sure you don’t let her down, brother.” In what ways does Richard end up letting Anita down? Why do you think he does? How does the fate of Anita and his children continue to shape his life long after their deaths?
11. There is often a conflict between “the letter of the law,“ which refers to a literal interpretation of the words, and “the spirit of the law,“ which refers to the intention behind the law. At the end of the book, Lucia tells Richard, “The law is cruel and justice is blind. Kathryn Brown helped us tilt the balance slightly in favor of natural justice, because we were protecting Evelyn, and now we have to do the same for Cheryl.” Do you agree with Lucia’s decision? Why or why not? If you were in a situation similar to Lucia’s, how do you think you would handle it?
12. Each of the main characters is a stranger to the people around her/him. In what way is Evelyn a stranger to the family she works for? Lucia is of course a foreigner in New York, but even as a colleague of Richard’s at NYU she remains a stranger to him, just as he is to her. Why do you think that is? In what ways do they misinterpret each other? To what extent do Evelyn, Lucia, and Richard each become less of a stranger by the end of the book?
13. Our protagonists each deal with trauma in their own way: Lucia with an open heart and taking risks; Evelyn by hiding, being silent, and trying to make herself invisible; and Richard by closing down and protecting himself. They have all experienced events that could have utterly destroyed them. Identify what these are for each character and compare how they each handled those events. In what ways did they succeeded in overcoming the trauma of their past? In what ways do they still carry it with them?
14. Lucia and Richard find love at a mature age. At first, they believed they were too old to find love, before realizing that they came together at exactly the right time. Is there an age limit for certain life experiences like falling in love? How has the process and concept of aging changed today when compared to the previous generation? Consider how the timeline has shifted for younger generations with regards to traditional milestones of earning a higher degree, building a career, getting married, owning a home, and starting a family, etc.
15. “In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.” Why do you think Isabel Allende chose to include this quote from Albert Camus in the book’s epigraph, title, and final scene? Most of the story literally takes place during the winter. But on the symbolic level, Evelyn, Lucia, and Richard are all experiencing a winter of the spirit. What does that consist of, for each of them? And what do you think the “invincible summer” is that each one finds within?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Research the gang that destroyed Evelyn’s family, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), which began in California, and has been recently in the news. The following sources provide some useful information on the gang’s origins and practices.
Have your group discuss the origins of this gang, and what steps can be taken to lessen its power.
2. Many films have explored the challenges faced by immigrants. Among them are The Immigrant, The Visitor, Sin Nombre, and El Norte. Stream one of these films with your reading group, and discuss how the issues faced by Evelyn compare with the issues faced by the characters in the films.
3. Have your group read two of Isabel Allende’s other novels, The House of the Spirits and The Japanese Lover. Both of these novels deal with subjects that are related to In the Midst of Winter. What similar themes do you notice in each of these novels that correspond to the themes of In the Midst of Winter? How does reading The House of the Spirits enhance your understanding of people like Lucia and what their families experienced during and after the military coup in Chile? In what ways does the experience of Ichimei Fukada—the Japanese gardener’s son in The Japanese Lover, who is forced with his family into an internment camp in a desert area of Utah during World War II—compare to the experience of modern-day immigrants and refugees like Evelyn, and the discrimination that they face?
4. In 2014, Isabel Allende gave a TED talk in which she discussed living passionately no matter what your age: ted.com/talks/isabel_allende_tells_tales_of_passion. Watch this TED talk with your group, and discuss which aspects of Allende’s perspective on aging are reflected in the vibrant character of Lucia.
5. To learn more about Isabel Allende, read reviews of In the Midst of Winter, learn about her other titles, and find her on tour, become a fan at her Simon & Schuster author page simonandschuster.com/authors/Isabel-Allende/1723104, and visit her website isabelallende.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The story of three very different people caught up in a wild adventure is the backdrop for revealing each of their life stories. It is part historical, romance, tragedy, and has subtle humor.
This novel is comprised of many complex elements . There's the underlying and unspoken romantic feelings between Richard and Lucia and the heartbreaking pasts of both . Intertwined is the young immigrant woman whose own background is terrifyingly sad. While the story gets farfetched at times, the plight of our neighbors in Central America should be a jolt to anyone who is unaware of the atrocities committed there .
I love Isabel Allende. In my mind her books are always a warm hug, keeping the threats of a cold world at bay for a few hours. In the Midst of Winter takes this analogy of a cold world even further. The book begins in a blizzard in New York City, while the characters keep warm in their own respective homes. Richard is 60 and set in a very strict routine, refusing to acknowledge his attraction to Lucia, a 62 year-old Chilean woman living in his basement apartment. When a car collision brings young Guatemalan immigrant Evelyn into their world, the two are drawn together in an effort to help Evelyn. Between chapters telling the story of their adventure, Allende also tells their individual stories in their Central American homes, which also gives readers a glance at the histories of those countries (Chile, Guatemala, and Brazil, FYI). The title In the Midst of Winter works in other ways as well. The story takes place in the midst of the winter season, so there’s that obvious point. But Richard and Lucia are in the winters of their lives, and much of the story focuses on the question of love and a relationship for them. Can they find love? There is so much heartache and sadness in each character’s history, and how each of them survives the heartache is so human and real. Lucia is the catalyst of this story, the one that brings them all together and pushes them to solve Evelyn’s problem and to live a bit. I believe the overriding theme of In the Midst of Winter is ‘don’t give up!’ Keep pushing, keep dreaming, keep going even when it seems impossible. Step out your comfort zone and live a bit! I loved the backstories and the history of their respective tumultuous countries. Lucia grew up in the shadow of facism in Chile in the 1970’s, losing a brother in the ensuing governmental change. Evelyn grew up in Guatemala during the rise of MS-13, and is forced to travel with a mule to the United States, where she became an underage refugee. Richard lived in Brazil for a few years do post-grad work, and ended up with a very sad story that caused him to shrink his life drastically. The backstories, and the history, all add to the ‘adventure’ during the snow storm. The actions of all three characters are understandable because of their histories. Underlying the ‘adventure’ is the hope for a romance between Richard and Lucia. Will they? won’t they? Can he overcome his anxiety? Can she cajole him out of his routine? Can Evelyn help bring them together, or will she tear them apart? All of these questions float through the book, and all are answered. I loved this story. I love the thought of love through the ages, and I loved the intertwining of history throughout. A great read, perfect for cold, winter days!
Would like to readit again
I loved this story and love this author, its a very human story!
Read for my local book club, I found this to be not only entertaining but educational. It's not an easy book to read. There is heartache and loss, but 3 people's lives are molded together in a very unique manner. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and look forward to reading more by this author.
Isabel Allende is one of my favorite writers. She weaves her tale by skillfully drawing the readers deep into her characters' heart, soul, and psyche. In the Midst of Winter tells the life stories of three people -- Lucia, Evelyn, and Richard --- whose lives are irrevocably thrust together on a cold winter day, the impact of which is life altering. Lucia and Evelyn's stories are compelling, and the more you learn about them, the more you love them. Richard is the opposite -- the more you learn of his life story, the less sympathetic you become of him and the traumas buried in his past. However, his contact with these two women, his compassion helping Evelyn, and his evolving friendship with Lucia, thaws the chill of his past, and changes him for the better.
Disappointing. I would rate this a 3.5. This is not one of my favorite Isabel Allende novels. I really enjoyed her most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, but I found this one lacking in cohesion and engagement. The focus of the novel is an incredibly interesting tale of three very different people but with a common thread of roots to South America or Central America, each having lost a brother, and the challenges of immigration (legal and illegal), love, torture and murder, and forgiveness. Richard Bowmaster is a professor in his 60s NYU who experienced a heartrending tragedy in Brazil; Lucia Maraz is a survivor of the murderous rampages in Chile after the 1973 military overthrow of Salvador Allende, and now teaching at NYU with Richard; and Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who as a young child saw firsthand the terrors of gang violence and government inaction and how it affected her and her immediate family. A snowy night in Brooklyn brings them all together and out of their comfort zones. I really got into it at the beginning but then found it disjointed and had trouble maintaining my interest. It does go back and forth in time, a literary tool that has often worked in other novels but not for me in this one. I did find the historical aspects very interesting, the gruesome times in Chile and Guatemala and which are topics that are indeed very current in today’s world. this story legal and illegal. However, although I did not enjoy this book as much as some of her other novels, one cannot underestimate Isabel Allende’s incredible prose and writing style, which is why I rated it higher.
I’m finding the plot of this book rather difficult to summarize, likely because there were several stories playing out in the past and present of each character’s life. So here is my best attempt: Three people who are indirectly connected by their previous lives in Central and South America find themselves in a tricky situation, the resolution to which is blurred by their previous experiences and the irreparable harm that would come to one of them if they came forward. This is my first novel by the famous and well-regarded Isabel Allende, and while it didn’t wow me, I found it to be smartly written, and the premise piqued my interest from the onset. Historical fiction is definitely one of my preferred genres, particularly if the subject matter or time period draws me into a culture, time or place of which I know very little. Then I get to enjoy the fictional bits and feel like I’m getting something educational out of it as well. Having read this book, I feel like my perspective on immigration has been widened, and my interest in Central and South America has increased ten-fold. What made this a 3.5 star rather than a 4 star is the developing romance between two of the main characters. While I appreciate the theme of finding love later in life, the connection between Lucia and Richard simply wasn’t there. It didn’t feel believable to me. A friendship and mutual respect? Definitely. Romantic feelings? Absent. It felt like I was being told when I prefer being shown. What made it a 3.5 star rather than a 3 star is the exceptional writing, the degree to which I loved Lucia and the need to know how it all turned out in the end. While the romantic aspect of the book didn’t suit me, everything else about it did. If you like literary and/or historical fiction, this is a great read. If you want a different perspective on immigration and the myriad reasons why people risk their lives to cross the border rather than wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, this is a great read. Note: I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.