Somethng In The Water
by Catherine Steadman


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.


Characters: Violeta Del Valle, Arsenio (father), Maria Gracia (mother), Jose Antonio (brother), Aunts Pia and Pilar (apothecary and mechanical), Fabian Schmidt-Engler (first husband) Julian Bravo (second husband), Juan Martin (son, Julian), Nieves (daughter, Julian), Camilo (grandson), Apolonio Toro (aka Torito-a giant adolescent who arrived and never left), Lucinda Rivas (Abel’s wife), Teresa Rivas (daughter), Bruno Rivas (brother to Abel), Facunda (Indian woman), Roy Cooper, Anushka, Vania Halperin

1. The novel is a long (epistolary) letter to her grandson, Camilo, born to her daughter, Nieves, who died during childbirth from eclampsia. Which parts do you feel were appropriate or inappropriate to reveal, especially since by the time this letter was finished, Camilo was a priest? Do you think this was more like Violeta’s confession or last testament?

2. Not many novels start in utero, so how did you like the beginning?

3. Violeta was named after her great-grandmother who, while in Spain, had “embroidered the shield of the first flag after independence, in the 1800s.” After reading this novel, are there other associations you can make with her name?

4. Which parts of this letter do you feel are appropriate or inappropriate (if at all) to reveal to Camilo, who by the time this letter us written, is a priest?

5. Did you feel Allende stayed on point throughout with a letter only to Camilo or moved into more of a documentary toward a more general audience?

6. In the story, were you able to physically identify the place settings or locations?

7. Violeta had many protectors around her, like her brother, Jose Antonio, for instance. Plus her Aunties Pia and Pilar, Facunda, and others. Discuss how their individual contributions enhanced Violeta’s life and successes.

8. Violeta often hid behind her brother in order to conduct her business. How common was it, do you think, for a woman during that era to have to do the same?

9. Julian contained the business seller’s sense and the heart’s on fire charisma that bound Violeta to him, while Fabian was stable and true. How was it that Violeta fell out of love with both of them? What were the circumstances?

10. Let’s talk about “Torito,” Apolonio Toro, who came into the Del Valle’s lives and never left. What role did he play in Violeta’s life? In what ways was he much like her?
     In the end, Torito is murdered by soldiers and buried with others in a cave. When his body is discovered Facunda gives Violeta his carved, wooden cross. By receiving it, Violeta claims it changed her life.
    “Sometimes our fates take turns that we don’t notice in the moment they occur, but if you live as long as I have they become clear in hindsight. At each crossroads or fork we must decide which direction to take. These decisions may determine the course of the rest of our lives. That’s what happened to me the day I recovered Torito’s cross. I know that now. Until then I’d lived comfortably without questioning the world I’d been born into; my only unflagging objective had been to raise the boy that Nieves had left an orphan.“
    “At age sixty-four I felt defeated and ready to surrender to old age, but then Torito’s cross guided me onto a different path and gave me purpose, a new life, a chance to be useful, and a marvelous freedom of the soul. I shed a large part of my material burdens and fears, except the fear of something bad happening to you, Camilo.”
    She never takes the cross off, willing it instead to Camilo, Why do you think Torito’s cross means so much to Violeta?


1. What did you think about Violeta as a character? How did she evolve throughout the course of the book? Which period of her life was the most interesting to you? Did you learn anything from her story?

2. Violeta tells her story in the form of a letter, a practice inspired by Isabel Allende’s own correspondence with her mother, Panchita. Since Allende was 16, she and her mother would write letters almost daily when they were apart, each writing one half of a shared monologue that recorded their lives. What does the epistolary style add to the overall effect of the novel?

3. The novel is bookended by two pandemics. Did that timeline encourage you to examine what it means to live during and through such times more closely? What does it take to keep going when the world is filled with turmoil and unease?

4. Allende chooses to leave the country unnamed in VIOLETA, though scenes in the novel are inspired by historical events in the region and Allende’s life --- such as military coups and dictatorships, the 1918 flu pandemic, The Great Depression, the Women’s Rights movement, etc. Why do you think she made this choice? How did the open-ended setting impact your reading experience?

5. Violeta experiences different kinds and stages of love --- expressed through family, security, passion, grief, kinship, tolerance, acceptance and good humor. Discuss Violeta’s various relationships. How does Allende capture the ways we love? In what ways does our capacity for love change over time?

6. Violeta says, “It was clear to me from a young age that although I respected them, my mother and my aunts were stuck in the past, uninterested in the outside world or anything that might challenge their beliefs.” Discuss the ways different generations approach feminism.

7. Violeta is filled with playful, witty humor. What scenes or moments made you laugh? What does humor add to the overall effect of the story?

8. Violeta’s Aunt Pia observes, “Better a boring husband than an unreliable one.” Do you agree? Do you think passion or loyalty is more important for a good marriage?

9. Memory is a major theme in this novel, made up of the unexpected events that make a life. Sometimes it’s a blessing and sometimes it’s a curse, as Violeta says. Discuss how the book explores memory.

10. In the last chapter, Allende writes, “There’s a time to live and a time to die. In between there’s time to remember.” How did this book make you reflect on your own life? What did you take away from reading it?

WMBC Questions compiled by: Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
Apr. 2022