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Born in Lima, Peru, her Chilean diplomat father and her mother divorced and she lived with her mother and grandparents. She worked first as a secretary and then as a journalist in print, on television and in movie documentaries.
After the overthrow and assassination in 1973 of her uncle, Salvador Allende, president of Chile, Isabel Allende and her husband and children left for safety in Venezuela.
It was in her exile that she began to write The House of the Spirits, her first novel, which was based on her own family and the politics of Chile.
She continued to produce novels based in part on her own experience, often focusing on the experience of women, weaving myth and realism together. She has lectured and done extensive book tours, and has taught literature at colleges in Virginia, New Jersey and California.
Her 1995 work, Paula, is based on the extended coma and death of her daughter in 1992.
She was divorced from her first husband, Miguel Frías, an engineer. In 1988, she married William Gordon, a lawyer.