For me, I have only ever read her first novel, The House of Spirits, and not being a magic type person, it didn't wow me. Which is probably why I loved this novel, as I am obviously not a typical Isabel Allende fan! I can see all the shortcomings identified by other reviewers - the lack of character development, the use of many tried and true twentieth century plot devices - Aids, anti semitism, WWII, Japanese internment, child pornography and abuse, the stereotypical characters - cantankerous old lady, submissive docile Japanese, the lost, damaged and frail young woman. Yes all of that is there, but I didn't really see any of this in the story telling or in my enjoyment of the novel.
Above all else, the author is a story teller, a marvellous weaver of tales and people's relationships with each other. Irina Bazili is a young Moldovan woman who has escaped a wretched life, now living in San Francisco. She starts a job at a retirement establishment, the type of retirement establishment I would like to end up in - serving organic food would you believe. Among Irina's elderly residents is Alma Belasco, a feisty, wealthy and very independent but lonely woman. She and Irina become close, and slowly over time Alma's story is told, including her close relationship with Ichimei Fukuka, the son of the gardener of the house she lived in as a child. Irina also slowly learns to trust those around her, and her story is gradually told. It concludes satisfyingly well, unresolved differences are resolved, characters are surprising. I enjoyed it very much.