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.