Isabel Allende's wide international readership will be well satisfied after the six-year wait for Daughter of Fortune, an ambitious romance laden with drama and sensuality. The Chilean author came to international recognition with her debut novel, the highly acclaimed The House of the Spirits (1985), a multigenerational saga of the Trueba family culminating in the horrors of the country's 1973 military coup. Allende has been consistently carving out her literary niche ever since, through the novels Of Love and Shadows (1984), Eva Luna (1988), and The Infinite Plan (1993); with short stories, a memoir, and eclectic musings on the erotic and culinary interspersed between them. In these works, Allende established an unmistakable voice and a set of concerns that form the essential foundations on which Daughter of Fortune is built, but beyond which the book attempts to expand.
The story begins in mid-19th century Valparaíso, Chile, then a thriving British port and the most compelling of the narrative's many settings. Enter Jeremy and Rose Sommers, a brother and sister pair who have established themselves at the head of expatriate society, valiantly tending the delicate flower of Victorian ways on the harsh alien soil. When an infant is abandoned on their doorstep, Rose considers the child a divine consolation for her forgone motherhood, and the foundling completes their unconventional familial situation. The baby, whom they name Eliza, is destined to become a courageous and deeply individual young woman. She grows up between worlds, spending her days half with her native-Chilean nanny immersed in the bustle of the kitchen and household chores, and half with Rose, practicing the piano, shopping for small luxuries, and bathing in tubs of skin-softening milk. The tension in her divided identity climaxes when Eliza encounters Joaquín Andieta, a destitute but passionate revolutionary, and immediately falls madly in love with him. After a somewhat unfulfilling affair, Joaquín dashes off to California to try his luck at the newly-discovered gold mines. Soon after Joaquín leaves, Eliza discovers that she is pregnant, and circumstances force her to pursue him as a stowaway in the hold of a ship.
The events that follow this crucial decision fall like a series of dominoes set in motion. Eliza meets the traditional Chinese healer Tao Chi'en, who will become a crucial part of her life. She has a miscarriage and nearly dies in the two-month sea journey; upon disembarking, she is forced to disguise herself as a Chinese and later a Chilean youth; under the guise of looking for her "brother" Joaquín, she voyages up and down the bitter landscape of the Gold Rush, eventually settling for a time as a piano player in a brothel of kindly whores. Despite an astonishing amount of historical detail, Allende is weaker on American soil, flattening characters and situations with a heavy hand. Ultimately, Tao tracks Eliza down and brings her back to San Francisco, where together they vigorously set about extricating prostitutes from the evil clutches of the avaricious madams in Chinatown. All this time, Eliza has not ceased her search for Joaquín, but eventually a shocking twist of events causes her to finally relinquish him. Liberated at last, she and Tao are now free to act on the love they have gradually found for each other.
Allende deftly weaves a lush tale of four continents into this absorbing page-turner. Her writing is passionate, earthy, and sensorially overwhelming, richly evocative of exotic locales, sexual exploration, and the driving force of destiny. Yet the novel's epic proportions and scope are at times achieved at the expense of character development and realism: Jeremy and Rose verge on fossilized Victorian clichés, while Tao is far too much the stereotypical Chinaman, another of the "mute ants" invading the American Pacific Coast in droves. Allende's storytelling, while retaining the spellbinding quality of The House of the Spirits, here navigates new territory. Perhaps deliberately attempting to evade the label of magical realism that has been conferred, all too often, upon her earlier work, Allende skirts around the supernaturalism her readers may be expecting. Gone are the clairvoyance and long green tresses of House, the closest Daughter comes to magic is in a brief visitation from Tao's dead wife Lin. On the other hand, the feminism and the emphasis upon journeys of personal liberation which have come to be associated with Allende are everywhere in evidence in this text. In fact, it reads in many ways like a feminist allegory, in which the conventions of Victorian society, Chilean chauvinism, and even American materialism are eschewed in favor of multicultural blending and a blurring of gender roles. In the end, after experiencing the rough new land of exploding possibilities in the guise of a man, Eliza is sufficiently liberated to freely choose her femininity for herself in her new life with Tao. It is an optimistic and triumphant conclusion to an extravagant odyssey.