Portrait in Sepia

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Overview

Internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende has written a magnificent historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century in Chile, a marvelous family saga that takes up and continues the story begun in her highly acclaimed Daughter of Fortune.

Recounted in the voice of a young woman in search of her roots, Portrait in Sepia is a novel about memory and family secrets. Aurora del Valle suffers a brutal trauma that shapes her character and erases from her mind all ...

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Overview

Internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende has written a magnificent historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century in Chile, a marvelous family saga that takes up and continues the story begun in her highly acclaimed Daughter of Fortune.

Recounted in the voice of a young woman in search of her roots, Portrait in Sepia is a novel about memory and family secrets. Aurora del Valle suffers a brutal trauma that shapes her character and erases from her mind all recollection of the first five years of her life. Raised by her ambitious grandmother, the regal and commanding Paulina del Valle, she grows up in a privileged environment, free of the limitations that circumscribe the lives of women at that time, but tormented by horrible nightmares. When she is forced to recognize her betrayal at the hands of the man she loves, and to cope with the resulting solitude, she decides to explore the mystery of her past.

Portrait in Sepia is an extraordinary achievement: richly detailed, epic in scope, intimate in its probing of human character, and thrilling in the way it illuminates the complexity of family ties.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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)

From The Critics
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 names—San Francisco, Chile, Panama, London, New York, Florence—further 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 oversized—her 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 delves—although not entirely convincingly, and with an uncharacteristically stilted prose—into 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 itself—she 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 life—the 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.
—Beth Kephart

Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
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.
San Francisco Chronicle
“Portrait in Sepia is rich with color and emotion and packed with intriguing characters.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060936365
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 8.06 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Peru, Isabel Allende was raised in Chile. She is the author of the novels Portrait in Sepia, Daughter of Fortune, The Infinite Plan, Eva Luna, Of Love and Shadows, and The House of the Spirits, the short story collection The Stories of Eva Luna, the memoir Paula, and Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses. She lives in California.

Biography

In Isabel Allende's books, human beings do not exist merely in the three-dimensional sense. They can exert themselves as memory, as destiny, as spirits without form, as fairy tales. Just as the more mystical elements of Allende's past have shaped her work, so has the hard-bitten reality. Working as a journalist in Chile, Allende was forced to flee the country with her family after her uncle, President Salvador Allende, was killed in a coup in 1973.

Out of letters to family back in Chile came the manuscript that was to become Allende's first novel. Her arrival on the publishing scene in 1985 with The House of the Spirits was instantly recognized as a literary event. The New York Times called it "a unique achievement, both personal witness and possible allegory of the past, present and future of Latin America."

To read a book by Allende is to believe in (or be persuaded of) the power of transcendence, spiritual and otherwise. Her characters are often what she calls "marginal," those who strive to live on the fringes of society. It may be someone like Of Love and Shadows 's Hipolito Ranquileo, who makes his living as a circus clown; or Eva Luna, a poor orphan who is the center of two Allende books (Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna).

Allende's characters have in common an inner fortitude that proves stronger than their adversity, and a sense of lineage that propels them both forward and backward. When you meet a central character in an Allende novel, be prepared to meet a few generations of his or her family. This multigenerational thread drives The House of the Spirits, the tale of the South American Trueba family. Not only did the novel draw Allende critical accolades (with such breathless raves as "spectacular," "astonishing" and "mesmerizing" from major reviewers), it landed her firmly in the magic realist tradition of predecessor (and acknowledged influence) Gabriel García Márquez. Some of its characters also reappeared in the historical novels Portrait in Sepia and Daughter of Fortune.

"It's strange that my work has been classified as magic realism," Allende has said, "because I see my novels as just being realistic literature." Indeed, much of what might be considered "magic" to others is real to Allende, who based the character Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits on her own reputedly clairvoyant grandmother. And she has drawn as well upon the political violence that visited her life: Of Love and Shadows (1987) centers on a political crime in Chile, and other Allende books allude to the ideological divisions that affected the author so critically.

But all of her other work was "rehearsal," says Allende, for what she considers her most difficult and personal book. Paula is written for Allende's daughter, who died in 1992 after several months in a coma. Like Allende's fiction, it tells Paula's story through that of Allende's own and of her relatives. Allende again departed from fiction in Aphrodite, a book that pays homage to the romantic powers of food (complete with recipes for two such as "Reconciliation Soup"). The book's lighthearted subject matter had to have been a necessity for Allende, who could not write for nearly three years after the draining experience of writing Paula.

Whichever side of reality she is on, Allende's voice is unfailingly romantic and life-affirming, creating mystery even as she uncloaks it. Like a character in Of Love and Shadows, Allende tells "stories of her own invention whose aim [is] to ease suffering and make time pass more quickly," and she succeeds.

Good To Know

Allende has said that the character of Gregory Reeves in The Infinite Plan is based on her husband, Willie Gordon.

Allende begins all of her books on January 8, which she considers lucky because it was the day she began writing a letter to her dying grandfather that later became The House of the Spirits.

She began her career as a journalist, editing the magazine Paula and later contributing to the Venezuelan paper El Nacional.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



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.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction "Each of us chooses the tone for telling his or her own story," says Aurora del Valle, the heroine of Isabel Allende's newest novel. "I would like to choose the durable clarity of a platinum print, but nothing in my destiny possesses the luminosity. I live among diffuse shadings, veiled mysteries, uncertainties; the tone of telling my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia." Aurora is referring to a technique in old-fashioned portraiture, one that results in a soft and dreamlike, rather than sharp, image. Likewise, Aurora's personal history is shadowy. Her mother died hours after she was born; her father was a stranger. Aurora's memories of early childhood are a mixture of family legend and hazy images, one of which haunts her for years. She pieces together her past through stories told to her by her many relatives. Like a child wandering through a maze, each piece of new information illuminates a dark corner of her life, and explains mysteries that both confounded and thwarted her. Aurora's story takes readers on a remarkable journey from San Francisco's grandest Nob Hill mansions to its thriving yet nearly invisible Chinese community. It places us in the stifling living rooms of traditional Chilean society and then hurls us across the country's rugged landscape to its spacious farms and ranches. We witness the violence and brutality of the Chilean revolution, as well as the cruel oppression of women in Chinese society. As in her previous novels, Allende's enormous talent for blending history and fiction are in wondrous evidence. More than just a vehicle for teaching us some important historical lessons, Aurora emerges as a complex andrewarding character with a fascinating story of her own. As she matures from a timid girl unsure of who she is or where she came from to a strong and willful young woman with a clear sense of what she wants, Aurora's life reflects the elements of her heritage, whether she realizes it or not. She possesses her paternal grandmother's open-mindedness and loyalty; her maternal grandmother's stubbornness and kindness. She inherited her biological father's artistic flair; her mother's romanticism; and, eventually, her grandfather's quiet confidence. Aurora is also a product of her multicultural past. Part Chilean, part Chinese, part English, she feels no strong affinity to any culture. In separating from her husband, she has removed herself from Chilean society. When she looks at a photograph of herself as a young child, she doesn't recognize the girl dressed in a coat of Chinese silk. And yet she is haunted by a dream in which she is that little girl. A dream that doesn't make sense until she learns, at last, the details of her birth. How much are we a product of our past? Is it important to know where we came from? What happens when the truth is different from what we thought? Allende attempts to answer these questions in this novel that is as full of twists and turns as a mountain road, as broad in scope as the estates of a Chilean patrone. Her portrait of Aurora's life -- from the time she was adopted by her paternal grandmother, to her emergence as a talented photographer and independent woman -- speaks volumes about history, politics, racism and sexism. But it also reveals an intricately constructed and fully developed character. Aurora's past may be hazy and filled with shadows, but her character is as sharply etched and indelible as the finest photographic print. Discussion Questions
  • Allende opens her novel with a striking image: a large, ornate bed which Paulina del Valle orders to be paraded through the streets of San Francisco in an attempt to humiliate her husband and his mistress. When and how does the image of this bed recur throughout the story? What do you think it symbolizes?
  • How does Allende contrast the cultures of San Francisco, Chinatown and Chile? How do the strict religious and cultural traditions of Chile contrast with the chaotic, vibrant life of a growing American city? Which seems a better place to raise a child?
  • In Paulina del Valle, Allende has created a richly complex character, as despised as she is loved, as self-absorbed as she is generous. What do you think of Paulina? Do you think she provided Aurora with a better environment than Eliza could have? How does she serve as a model for modern women, and how does she represent the traditional world of 19th century Chile?
  • Aurora is raised in a wealthy Chilean household surrounded by people who love and care for her. Yet her past -- and therefore her true identity -- remain a secret. Do you feel sorry for Aurora? Do you think she would have been shocked to know the details of her birth? How important is it to know where we came from, and who our parents are?
  • Aurora del Valle is three-quarters Chilean and one-eighth Chinese and one-eighth English. How do these multi-cultural origins emerge in her personality? What effect does your own ethnic background have on your life today? In a country that prides itself on its multi-culturalism, how important is it for us to preserve the traditions and beliefs of our heritage?
  • Aurora remarks of her engagement to Diego, "The danger signs were evident to anyone with two eyes in his head, except for my grandmother -- blinded by fear of leaving me alone -- and me, madly in love." Just like her mother Lynn, Aurora's desire leads her to a disastrous choice. But how much choice did Aurora -- or her mother, for that matter -- really have? Do you think either woman could have avoided the forces that led them to sacrifice so much to unworthy men?
  • Why do you think Aurora is drawn to the art of photography? What can a picture reveal that the naked eye cannot see? Do you think Aurora's portraits of Diego and Susana were a subconscious attempt to reveal a fact she already knew?
  • Aurora's life is filled with powerful women: her two grandmothers, Nivea, her tutor Senorita Pineta, her mother-in-law Dona Elvira. How do these women shape her life? What elements of each of them do you detect in Aurora as a mature woman?
  • Aurora is surrounded by equally impressive men: her grandfather, Tao Ch'ien, her uncle Severo; Williams, her grandmother's second husband; and Ivan Redovic, the man who becomes her lifelong companion. What qualities do these men share? How do they contrast with the less admirable men she encounters? Do you think Allende provides balanced portraits of the men in this novel? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think Allende waited until the end of the novel to tell the story behind Tao's death? What does the incident represent to Aurora's life and to the novel? What is the effect of having Eliza tell the story to Aurora, as opposed to Aurora telling the story to the reader? All of Isabel Allende's works are available in the original Spanish from Rayo: Afrodita, Cuentos de Eva Luna, De Amor y de Sombra, El Plan Infinito, Eva Luna, Hija de la Fortuna, La Casa de los Espiritus, Paula, and Retrato en Sepia.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 31 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2001

    The Master Has Done It Again !!

    Once again, Allende has shown why she is such a good writer. The protagonist in this story is Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers. Like Eliza, she is a strong, passionate woman who must hold her own in the world she lives in. The characters are well developed and memorable, the setting vivid, and the plot lively. I felt as though I had been temporarily adopted into a Chilean family and loved instantly. I had so much fun, I didn't want to leave. This is a beautiful book!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 15, 2010

    Solid Three Stars

    Portrait in Sepia, by Isabel Allende, (published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. in 2001 in New York) was a distinctive novel filled with twists and turns of surprise. Although the first section of the book starts off slow, it has a unique idea behind it: throughout this entire section you are unaware of who the narrator is. It takes place in Chinatown, where the family of Eliza Sommers, her husband Tao Chi-en, their son, and their daughter Lynn live. The other main family lives just outside of Chinatown, and this is the wealthy family of Paulina del Valle, her husband Feliciano Rodríguez de Santa Cruz, their son Matías, two other sons, and Paulina's nephew, Severo del Valle.
    Within the first section, the narrator, unidentified, tells the story of how she came to be. Lynn Sommers is her mother, who died at her birth, and Matías is her biological father, but Severo del Valle is her legal father. Lynn marries Severo when Matías leaves after she finds out she is pregnant, but then dies soon after the birth of Aurora, the narrator and main character who was finally revealed.
    The second and third sections of the novel are basically telling of the life of Aurora. At first she lived with her grandparents, Eliza and Tao, and this was for five years until her grandfather died and Eliza made the decision to hand Aurora over to Paulina, her other grandmother. Throughout the novel, you find out about Aurora's past, and this includes her relationship with her Grandmother and all of her other family, as well as her love of photography. This fictional memoir has an exceptional way, though it is not always effective, of engaging the reader in order to share Aurora's recollections.
    I did not find this book interesting, but this is merely because it did not fit my personal taste. However, the occasional simile made long paragraphs go by quickly, like when Severo came to visit Aurora, he "made her whirl like a top so he could look at her from every angle" (Allende 221). Engaging similes like this one take a book to a new level. One factor that I did not like, however, was the fact that there is a minimal amount of dialogue in this book. One other thing I did enjoy about Portrait in Sepia was the significance of the actual title. Towards the end the connection is made between the fact that she is a photographer and that the title is about a portrait. I would show a quote, but it would give away the final line of the book, and I would not want to give away this epiphany.
    Reading this was not only enjoyable at times, but it also held some interesting information. At one point, Severo goes to war to honor his country and he participates in The War of the Pacific. By reading this book you are immersed in not only Spanish culture, but also history. I also was exposed to numerous Spanish words throughout the novel, and it was either said the definition, or you had to use context clues or a dictionary to find out. At one point on page 251, for example, chancaca was told to be dark sugar.
    I would recommend this book, but only to certain audiences. I for one am a fan of books that are not as laid back and slow-progressing as this one, but many people have a taste in books that is completely opposite to mine. You would enjoy this novel if you like reading about war, romance, and the general unwinding story of a girl's life. Portrait in Sepia is a novel that to fully appreciate it you have to have a certain preference.

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  • Posted November 28, 2010

    enjoyable for a relaxed read

    I read this while traveling and really like learning about the time period and setting. Thought parts of the story dragged on but liked the characters and overall a good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2007

    What happened?

    This book had so much potential. The story had complicated, lovable characters, the author has a beautiful talent for crafting exquisite prose, and the setting in luscious Chile around the turn of the century provided for ample plot turns in itself. However, I think that maybe a little too luch time passed in the storyline too many characters appeared and then disappeared. Sometime after Aurora leaves the del Valle home in Santiago to live with the Dominguez family, the story just becomes boring. The novel seemed to be charging towards some sort of vindication for Aurora, something that would reveal her true destiny. But it never happens, she seems to just give up at the end of the book, resigned to living off her father's fortune with a man she can't marry. She never becomes a famous photographer. The book just ends, as if the author didn't know quite what else to do with it. She hurriedly explains in the last pages Aurora's deep secret and what happened to the characters that disappeared in the earlier pages. This plotline falls flat. And, at times, the author seems to stoop to Harlequin-novel type-preposterous-sex-scenes which honestly deplete the realness of the characters. But the author's skill for prose saves this novel from being a total waste of time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 25, 2005

    Dissapointed

    Unlike Daughter of Fortune this one had an extremely bland ending. I was very disappointed and felt sorry for the main character as she was betrayed and fell into a friend with benifits relationship that never had any resolution as far as the reader knows of, Very Disapointed

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2005

    Good read, but some hokey writing

    After reading and enjoying Daughter of Fortune, I thought this was a must read. With the exception of some pages of historical set up that seems tedious at times, it was actually pretty enjoyable and read pretty quickly. I like all the characters and all the turns. My biggest beef would have to be that some of the dialogue and language borders on hokey at times. there was one line that read 'he licked her sex'. i cringed at it! almost laughed out loud! But if you're looking for a good read that will keep you enchanted, this is it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    Trully Wonderful

    This book was magnificent. Allende has a pure talent for lulling the reader into a magical tale of passion, heartbreak, and adventure. The historical details of the struggles in Chile and the culture of America in the 1800s only adds to the richness of the story. After reading both Daughter of Fortune and Potrait in Sepia I cannot wait to read more by Allende.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2003

    Good book, disappointing ending

    This book was great, and filled with interesting details. However the ending was predictable and didn't surprise the reader in any way. A great book for a rainy day!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2002

    Worth Reading

    It is an entertaining and lively book with some good lessons in it. It isn't as good as House of the Spirits, but is still worth reading. The courage of the characters is refreshing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2002

    Another Allende Masterpiece

    You just can't go wrong with a novel by this author. If you fell in love with the characters from Portrait in Sepia, you will want to follow up with this book. As usual, the Mr. Allende engrosses the reader in her well developed characters and story lines. She keeps you wondering where people have gone, and delivers when you felt you would never know. She is a true storyteller.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2002

    Great for Insomniacs

    I thought the book was too overly exposed to historical facts which most of her books are. However, I did read the translated version of the story and it probably lost something because it wasn't told in the rich Spanish language which it was originally written. The plot was better establish than in "Daughter of Fortune," but her form of writing is boring. It was extremely hard to finish the book without falling asleep. I recomended this book for insomniacs who need a good night's rest. I have read all her books, trying to discover what the hype is about and found that there should not be one. This is one of her better written books and if I had to read something of hers, I would definately choose this book. I know that there are great Latino writers that do not have the proper connection to have their works translated, it is sad when the public are then exposed to these rich individuals who lack the talent. Isabel Allende is a great journalist, but in my opinion, not a good novelist.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2002

    Wonderful, warm and exiting!

    This book is another success for Isabel Allende. You won't be able to put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2002

    Escapism

    Lovely book, warmth, history, love and enough sexual intrigue without the gory details that muck things up.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2008

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2009

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews

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