The Barnes & Noble Review
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.
Read an Excerpt
Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory. She used the first to earn a living and the second to recall her life if not in precise detail, at least with an astrologer's poetic vagueness. The things we forget may as well never have happened, but she had many memories, both real and illusory, and that was like living twice. She used to tell her faithful friend, the sage Tao Chi'en, that her memory was like the hold of the ship where they had come to know one another: vast and somber, bursting with boxes, barrels, and sacks in which all the events of her life were jammed. Awake it was difficult to find anything in that chaotic clutter, but asleep she could, just as Mama Fresia had taught her in the gentle nights of her childhood, when the contours of reality were as faint as a tracery of pale ink. She entered the place of her dreams along a much traveled path and returned treading very carefully in order not to shatter the tenuous visions against the harsh light of consciousness. She put as much store in that process as others put in numbers, and she so refined the art of remembering that she could see Miss Rose bent over the crate of Marseilles soap that was her first cradle.
"You cannot possibly remember that, Eliza. Newborns are like cats, they have no emotions and no memory," Miss Rose insisted the few times the subject arose.
Possible or not, that woman peering down at her, her topaz-colored dress, the loose strands from her bun stirring in the breeze were engraved in Eliza's mind, and she could never acceptthe other explanation of her origins.
"You have English blood, like us," Miss Rose assured Eliza when she was old enough to understand. "Only someone from the British colony would have thought to leave you in a basket on the doorstep of the British Import and Export Company, Limited. I am sure they knew how good-hearted my brother Jeremy is, and felt sure he would take you in. In those days I was longing to have a child, and you fell into my arms, sent by God to be brought up in the solid principles of the Protestant faith and the English language."
"You, English? Don't get any ideas, child. You have Indian hair, like mine," Mama Fresia rebutted behind her patrona's back.
But Eliza's birth was a forbidden subject in that house, and the child grew accustomed to the mystery. It, along with other delicate matters, was never mentioned between Rose and Jeremy Sommers, but it was aired in whispers in the kitchen with Mama Fresia, who never wavered in her description of the soap crate, while Miss Rose's version was, with the years, embroidered into a fairy tale. According to her, the basket they had found at the office door was woven of the finest wicker and lined in batiste; Eliza's nightgown was worked with French knots and the sheets edged with Brussels lace, and topping everything was a mink coverlet, an extravagance never seen in Chile. Over time, other details were added: six gold coins tied up in a silk handkerchief and a note in English explaining that the baby, though illegitimate, was of good stock although Eliza never set eyes on any of that. The mink, the coins, and the note conveniently disappeared, erasing any trace of her birth. Closer to Eliza's memories was Mama Fresia's explanation: when she opened the door one morning at the end of summer, she had found a naked baby girl in a crate.
"No mink coverlet, no gold coins. I was there and I remember very well. You were shivering and bundled up in a man's sweater. They hadn't even put a diaper on you, and you were covered with your own caca. Your nose was running and you were red as a boiled lobster, with a head full of fuzz like corn silk. That's how it was. Don't get any ideas," she repeated stoutly. "You weren't born to be a princess and if your hair had been as black as it is now, Miss Rose and her brother would have tossed the crate in the trash."
At least everyone agreed that the baby came into their lives on March 15, 1832, a year and a half after the Sommers arrived in Chile, and they adopted that date as her birthday. Everything else was always a tangle of contradictions, and Eliza decided finally that it wasn't worth the effort to keep going over it, because whatever the truth was, she could do nothing to change it. What matters is what you do in this world, not how you come into it, she used to say to Tao Chi'en during the many years of their splendid friendship; he, however, did not agree. It was impossible for him to imagine his own life apart from the long chain of his ancestors, who not only had given him his physical and mental characteristics but bequeathed him his karma. His fate, he believed, had been determined by the acts of his family before him, which was why he had to honor them with daily prayers and fear them when they appeared in their spectral robes to claim their due. Tao Chi'en could recite the names of all his ancestors, back to the most remote and venerable great-great-grandparents dead now for more than a century. His primary concern during the gold madness was to go home in time to die in his village in China and be buried beside his ancestors; if not, his soul would forever wander aimlessly in a foreign land. Eliza, naturally, was drawn to the story of the exquisite basket no...Daughter of Fortune. Copyright © by Isabel Allende. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.