In a continent where the future is uncertain and the present is sometimes in the hands of less than honest men, a Latin American woman's life can be hell unless she, like Eva Luna, finds real love with a foreigner.

This latest book by Chilean writer Isabel Allende is the story of a woman whose name was invented and who was orphaned at a very early age.Eva's family situation bears explanation here because in traditional Latin American societies, abandonment and being orphaned are social stigmas.

Until the 1950s, priests decided at baptism whether a child was a "natural" or a "legitimate." The "legitimate" baby born to a married couple inherited the privileges of the family network. An illegitimate or "natural" baby was a penitent, and a complete pariah if by bad luck he was not white.

The Catholic Church generally cared for the illegitimate, educating the brightest and so creating their most loyal allies.

Although the situation has changed, that difference still fuels part of the social and political crisis in Latin America.

In Allende's novel, Eva, an "illegitimate," begins to find hope when she discovers she has the gift of storytelling, which permits her to create a past for herself and amuse the people she lives with.

After running away from her life as a servant, she is found by an unhappily married Lebanese immigrant, who teaches her to read and write. She falls in love with him but then is unjustly accused of the death of his wife.

Eva meets a former boyfriend, a streetwise kid she has known from childhood. He is now a guerrilla leader and, as in their childhood, he tries to patronize her. But Eva does not want to be a Latin woman who earns her food and shelter by inflaming the egos of the men and hiding her tears in solitude.

She finds her love in a European journalist and, for her, he is her only hope.

In "Eva Luna," Allende again confirms she is the best contemporary woman writer in Latin America.