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Portrait in Sepia: A Novel

Portrait in Sepia: A Novel

4.1 31
by Isabel Allende

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In nineteenth-century Chile, Aurora del Valle suffers a brutal trauma that erases all recollections of the first five years of her life. Raised by her regal and ambitious grandmother Paulina del Valle, Aurora grows up in a privileged environment but is tormented by horrible nightmares. When she is forced to recognize her betrayal at the hands of the man she loves,


In nineteenth-century Chile, Aurora del Valle suffers a brutal trauma that erases all recollections of the first five years of her life. Raised by her regal and ambitious grandmother Paulina del Valle, Aurora grows up in a privileged environment but is 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 explores the mystery of her past.

Editorial Reviews

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 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.

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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.

Meet the Author

Isabel Allende is the author of twelve works of fiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Maya’s Notebook, Island Beneath the Sea, Inés of My Soul, Daughter of Fortune, and a novel that has become a world-renowned classic, The House of the Spirits. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, she lives in California.

Brief Biography

San Rafael, California
Date of Birth:
August 2, 1942
Place of Birth:
Lima, Peru

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Portrait in Sepia 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
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Amy_Kearns More than 1 year ago
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.
ktran More than 1 year ago
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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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!