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COMA LEADS TO TALE OF LOVE, MEANINGS, MAGIC

Isabel Allende's new book is heartbreakingly wonderful. Find a copy and read it.

This is Allende's autobiography, the story of her family and everyone she has ever loved, as told to her daughter, Paula.In 1991, when Paula was 28, she got sick quite suddenly and went into a coma. Desperate to keep her connected to this life, Allende sat next to Paula's bed and told her the stories of their family.

If you loved Allende's previous novels or short stories, you will love her nonfiction as well. "Paula" is much like the "House of Spirits" or "The Stories of Eva Luna," only more touching, because these stories of love and death and clairvoyance and intrigue really happened.

Or kind of really happened. As you read "Paula," you are aware of Allende's imaginative memory at work. She admits quite candidly that when she was a young woman gaining fame as a journalist in Chile, she had some pretty important readers (such as her editor) who didn't trust her reporting. Her idol, the poet Pablo Neruda, was the first to tell her she had a gift for fiction. "You are the worst journalist in Chile," was how he put it.

But her imagination is what her readers love most about Allende. She is amazed by life. She sees meanings and magic that the rest of us miss.

There was the time she was pregnant with her son. She and her husband and baby Paula were nomads, living out of a Volkswagen, when Allende was carrying Nicolas. She was sick and miserable. But where another woman might have remembered only the inconveniences, Allende puts it more charmingly:

"With such antecedents, Nicolas should have been a wild adventurer, but he turned out to be one of those calm souls who inspire confidence at first sight. In the womb, he adjusted to circumstances as unobtrusively as one of the cells of my own body - just as in a certain way he still is. Even in the best of cases, however, a pregnancy is a major invasion, an amoeba growing in one's innards and passing through multiple stages of evolution - fish, cockroach, dinosaur, monkey - until it reaches human form."

Allende's writing style seems to come directly from her mother's side of the family. They were wealthy mystics. Her father - whom she did not know at all, and could never remember seeing, actually, until she was called to identify his body - came from a family of politicians. Her father's brother, the Marxist Salvador Allende, stayed in close contact with his brother's ex-wife and children. Allende tells Paula his story, too, along with the stories of other uncles. Thus, "Paula" becomes a story of the politics as well as the culture of Chile.

In 1970, when Salvador Allende became president of Chile, he appointed Isabel's stepfather as ambassador to Argentina. Once when Isabel was visiting her mother and stepfather at the ambassador's palatial residence, she met a seer - the most famed fortune teller in Buenos Aires. The woman read the future for Allende and told her that one of her children would be known around the world. Allende pulled out photos of Nicolas and Paula and asked which child would be famous. The woman pointed to Paula.

For a long time after Paula went into a coma, Allende held on to the words of the seer. Against all reason, Allende continued to think Paula would wake up, be herself again, go on to fulfill her destiny.

Allende believes in love. It took her a year to understand that someone as loved as Paula - so important to her young husband, so important to her mother and her grandmother and her father and her brother - could not actually be saved by love.

Sometimes Allende would tell stories aloud, sitting in the hospital, next to the bed that held her motionless daughter. Eventually she began writing them down as letters to Paula, detailing the everyday dramas of several generations of family life, including the military coup that sent them into exile. Theirs is an exciting family history. Allende's telling makes it even more dramatic.

Allende poured her anguish into these stories. In the end, however, she couldn't make a miracle. Paula was not destined to speak or move or do anything further in this life. She was simply, at the conclusion of 29 years, the adored daughter of Isabel and Michael and the adored wife of Ernesto. Nothing more.

But Paula may be famous yet, just as predicted. She may come to be known by many people if this book is as popular and widely translated as Allende's previous books have been.

Surely this will happen. "Paula" is a sensual, funny, bizarre and exultant tragedy. It is as good as anything Allende has ever written. It is not to be missed.