San Francisco Chronicle
“Portrait in Sepia is rich with color and emotion and packed with intriguing characters.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
Few authors today write with as much exuberance as Isabel Allende. Her books House of the Spirits, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, and the phenomenally bestselling Daughter of Fortune are like grapes bursting in your mouth -- sometimes tart, sometimes sweet, always sensual, and unfailingly juicy. Portrait in Sepia, Allende's third book in a loose trilogy about a Chilean extended family in the 19th and 20th centuries, is a full bottle of wine -- warm, robust, and intoxicating -- a mesmerizing bildungsroman of one young woman's journey of self-discovery.
Beautiful, passionate Aurora del Valle is tormented by nightmares from her childhood. The illegitimate grandchild of Paulina del Valle (a strong-willed, fiery Chilean matriarch who publicly humiliates her cheating husband by parading a Florentine bed through the city streets), Aurora begins life in uncertainty -- living with her maternal grandparents, Tao Chi'en and Eliza Sommers (protagonist of Daughter of Fortune) in San Francisco. Tao Chi'en, a well-respected and ardent activist in the community, has made it his life's mission to keep the numerous Chinese girls coming to California from going into prostitution. When a violent episode occurs that shatters the only family she has ever really known, Aurora is sent to live with her hot-blooded but loving grandmother, Paulina. In Chile, Aurora discovers a passion for photography and soon masters the art of looking into her subjects' hearts and souls. Through her craft she discovers love and heartache and confronts the memories she has repressed for so many years.
Passionate, enthralling, and filled with anecdotes and side stories that are more colorful than a Peruvian parrot, Allende's storytelling evokes Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet whereas the latter sculpts a world of magic realism, Allende has captured in sepia tones the magical, extraordinary lives and loves of Aurora and her wild family, making them so realistic and familiar that you'll swear they're part of your own family. (Stephen Bloom)
In the opening paragraph of her ninth, exotic book, Isabel Allende issues a warning: "This is a long story," the narrator cautions, "and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in the listening."
No false modesty there. Reading the first several pages of Portrait in Sepia is like watching the ball roll, skitter and drop in a perpetual-motion machine. Courtesans, aristocrats, seafarers, orphans, nephews and grandmothers, not to mention purveyors of erotica, rush tantalizingly by; everything's a scandal. A whorl of place namesSan Francisco, Chile, Panama, London, New York, Florencefurther threatens all reason and calm. Every tangent leads to at least two more, and it is almost impossible to make a guess at where the story's going. Who is this book about, and why should we care? You can almost hear Allende laughing at her readers' inevitable confusion.
But Allende is nothing if not a wholly self-confident spinner of baroquely complicated tales. She has no interest in narrative ease; she prefers, instead, to tantalize and to perform. Portrait in Sepia is, in some ways, a sequel to Allende's Daughter of Fortune, and the author clearly has a lot to say about one spectacularly sprawling, barely legitimate family. She wants her characters to dance out on the stage. Her head is full of gossip, titillation and naughty sex.
Ostensibly, Portrait in Sepia is about Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of the wanderlust-ridden Eliza Sommers, who starred in Daughter of Fortune. To get to Aurora's story, however, we must first go back and find her roots, must learn the sordid details ofher conception and the tragic circumstances of her birth, must meet the maternal grandparents who raise the child until the age of five, must spend time in the company of the paternal grandmother, the fabulous Paulina del Valle, who spirits Aurora away to Valparaiso, Chile, soon after the child is summarily placed in her care. Aurora's first impression of Paulina is fabulously drawn in Allende's coy and captivating style: "Since I saw her so many times in that same chair, it isn't hard to picture how she looked that first day: gowned in a profusion of jewels and enough cloth to curtain a house. Imposing. Beside her, the rest of the world disappeared ... I had never seen a creature of such dimensions, perfectly matched to the size and sumptuousness of her mansion."
Practically hurled into the exceptional world of her paternal grandmother, and soon faced with the confusing politics of a restless Chile, Aurora, an easily embarrassed and inherently shy child, suddenly finds herself among dozens of cousins and uncles, aunts and tutors and society do-gooders, not to mention an entire catalog of intrigues. Everyone in this book has a story to tell. Paulina, for her part, remains preposterously oversizedher hairstyle and wardrobe, her work and home, her charity and business propositions. But all the distractions of Paulina's tempestuous household do not prevent Aurora from seeking answers about the mystery of her birth and early years. Paulina has made it her business to eradicate the child's tragic past. Aurora, who suffers from private torments and nightmares, chafes against the obfuscation. Her history is like a mist that she can't quite push through. She turns in all directions, questioning, but no one will yield the slightest answers.
Told by both third- and first-person narrators, riddled by countless subplots (many of which are only peripherally linked back to Aurora), the book follows Aurora's maturation from a bewildered child and idiosyncratic young teenager through her unhappy marriage and erotic intrigues. It delvesalthough not entirely convincingly, and with an uncharacteristically stilted proseinto her passion for photography, a medium that purportedly helps her see and know the world. It explicates (and also sometimes seems to make light of) the civil unrest that churns outside her door. Throughout, plot is rarely the focus; instead, the book is exuberantly and perpetually about people, just as it is exuberantly and perpetually about Allende's high-kicking prose. Allende's imagination is a spectacle unto itselfshe infects her readers with her own colossal dreams.
The end of Portrait in Sepia, sadly, is a disappointment; the origins of Aurora's disturbing nightmares, while revealed, do not surprise the reader. And Aurora as a young woman never quite springs to lifethe final biographical details and intrigues feel tacked on, out of steam, manipulated. But with Portrait in Sepia, Allende proves once again that she is capable of concocting stories of the most vivid and surreal kind, that she is still in the business of teasing, seducing, lusting, shocking. Allende, it seems, has fun when she writes. Her books are effusive and energizing, and therefore fun to read.
HIn this third work concerning the various and intertwining lives of members of a Chilean family, Allende uses the metaphor of photography as memory. "Each of us chooses the tone for telling his or her own story; I would like to choose the durable clarity of a platinum print, but nothing in my destiny possesses that luminosity. I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone for telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia," declares Aurora del Valle, protagonist of the tale. Here, Allende picks up where 1999's Daughter of Fortune left off, and, in the course of her chronicles, mentions personages who were realized in her 1987 masterpiece, House of the Spirits. Like her other novels, Portrait in Sepia spans nearly 50 years and covers wars, love affairs, births, weddings and funerals. Rich and complex, this international, turn-of-the-century saga does not disappoint. The book opens as 30-year-old Aurora remembers her own birth, in the Chinatown of 1880 San Francisco. She tells of those present: her maternal, Chilean-English grandmother, Eliza; her grandfather Tao (a Chinese medic); and her mother, Lynn, a beloved beauty who dies during Aurora's birth. Realizing she is getting ahead of herself, Aurora backtracks, inviting the reader to be patient and listen to the events surrounding her life, from 1862 to 1910. Through Aurora, Allende exercises her supreme storytelling abilities, of which strong, passionate characters are paramount. Most memorable is Aurora's paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle, an enormous woman who eats pastries and runs her trading company with equally reckless abandon. Like Paulina, Allende attacks her subject with gusto, makingthis a grand installment in an already impressive repertoire. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Allende's new novel may center on Aurora de Valle, born in San Francisco's Chinatown and raised in Chile by her domineering grandmother, but it is really a group portrait of three generations of Aurora's family including her grandmother, Eliza Sommers, whom readers will remember from Daughter of Fortune. In fact, though Aurora's squalling birth opens the book, she doesn't figure prominently in the proceedings until about halfway through, when her grandmother gets custody of her and we learn of a trauma that will shape the rest of her life. Aurora is born to Lynn, daughter of Eliza and Chinese physician Tao Ch'en. A gorgeous but slightly dim girl, Lynn has fallen for the son of redoubtable Chilean matriarch Paulina de Valle and gotten herself pregnant. Much woe follows the birth of little Aurora, including the death of her mother and her mysterious kidnapping when she is only a few years old, and plenty of intrigue awaits her in Chile. The result is a polished, charming, if somewhat soap operaish tale that will please Allende fans. For most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/01.] Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Read an Excerpt
I came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San Francisco, in the home of my maternal grandparents. While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth. I was born in the early morning, but in Chinatown the clocks obey no rules, and at that hour the market, the cart traffic, the woeful barking of caged dogs awaiting the butcher's cleaver, were beginning to heat up. I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain. My maternal grandparents welcomed me with emotion -- even though according to several witnesses I was ugly as sin -- and placed me at my mother's breast, where I lay cuddled for a few minutes, the only ones I was to have with her. Afterward my uncle Lucky blew his breath in my face to pass his good luck on to me. His intention was generous and the method infallible, because at least for these first thirty years of my life, things have gone well. But careful! I don't want to get ahead of myself. This is a long story, and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in thelistening. If I lose the thread along the way, don't despair, because you can count on picking it up a few pages further on. Since we have to begin at some date, let's make it 1862, and let's say, to choose something at random, that the story begins with a piece of furniture of unlikely proportions.
Paulina del Valle's bed was ordered from Florence the year following the coronation of Victor Emmanuel, when in the new kingdom of Italy the echoes of Garibaldi's cannon shots were still reverberating. It crossed the ocean, dismantled, in a Genoese vessel, was unloaded in New York in the midst of a bloody strike, and was transferred to one of the steamships of the shipping line of my paternal grandparents, the Rodriguez de Santa Cruzes, Chileans residing in the United States. It was the task of Captain John Sommers to receive the crates marked in Italian with a single word: naiads. That robust English seaman, of whom all that remains is a faded portrait and a leather trunk badly scuffed from infinite sea journeys and filled with strange manuscripts, was my great-grandfather, as I found out recently when my past finally began to come clear after many years of mystery. I never met Captain John Sommers, the father of Eliza Sommers, my maternal grandmother, but from him I inherited a certain bent for wandering. To that man of the sea, pure horizon and salt, fell the task of transporting the Florentine bed in the hold of his ship to the other side of the American continent. He had to make his way through the Yankee blockade and Confederate attacks, sail to the southern limits of the Atlantic, pass through the treacherous waters of the Strait of Magellan, sail into the Pacific Ocean, and then, after putting in briefly at several South American ports, point the bow of his ship toward northern California, that venerable land of gold. He had precise orders to open the crates on the pier in San Francisco, supervise the ship's carpenter while he assembled the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, taking care not to nick the carvings, install the mattress and ruby-colored canopy, set the whole construction on a cart, and dispatch it at a leisurely pace to the heart of the city. The coachman was to make two complete turns around Union Square, and another two -- while jingling a little bell -- before the balcony of my grandfather's concubine, before depositing it at its final destination, the home of Paulina del Valle. This fanfaronade was to be performed in the midst of the Civil War, when Yankee and Confederate armies were massacring each other in the South and no one was in any mood for jokes or little bells. John Sommers fulfilled the instructions cursing, because during months of sailing that bed had come to symbolize what he most detested about his job: the whims of his employer, Paulina del Valle. When he saw the bed displayed on the cart, he sighed and decided that that would be the last thing he would ever do for her. He had spent twelve years following her orders and had reached the limits of his patience. That bed still exists, intact. It is a weighty dinosaur of polychrome wood; the headboard is presided over by the god Neptune surrounded by foaming waves and undersea creatures in bas-relief, and the foot, frolicking dolphins and cavorting sirens. Within a few hours, half of San Francisco had the opportunity to appreciate that Olympian bed. My grandfather's amour, however, the one to whom the spectacle was dedicated, hid as the cart went by, and then went by a second time with its little bell.
"My triumph lasted about a minute," Paulina confessed to me many years later, when I insisted on photographing the bed and knowing all the details. "The joke backfired on me. I thought everyone would make fun of Feliciano, but they turned it on me. I misjudged. Who would have imagined such hypocrisy? In those days San Francisco was a hornet's nest of corrupt politicians, bandits, and loose women."... Portrait in Sepia. Copyright © by Isabel Allende. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.