Portrait in Sepia: A Novel

Portrait in Sepia: A Novel

by Isabel Allende


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061991530
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/11/2010
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 329,061
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About 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.


San Rafael, California

Date of Birth:

August 2, 1942

Place of Birth:

Lima, Peru

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.

Reading Group Guide


"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.

  • Customer Reviews

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    Portrait in Sepia 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 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!
    countrylife on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    ¿Recounted in the voice of a young woman in search of her roots, Portrait in Sepia is a novel about memory and family secrets ¿, says the jacket copy. I saw it as not so much the telling of a mysterious mystery, but of the lives of a fascinating family. I really enjoyed getting to know these people, so real were they to me, as an onlooker in San Francisco to the life of privilege lived by some of them, and to the life of working hard and giving back of another part of the family; then travelling with them to Chile and witnessing how their lives changed with health issues, and during the time of political unrest; and watching as Aurora grows into her Self, with her camera as her help. I have not read Daughter of Fortune, which apparently precedes this tale. Although there were allusions to the previous history of several characters, I did not feel as though this story suffered from a lack of more information about them. If it suffered from anything, it would only be the inclusion of more than I¿d ever sought to know about Chilean political history. :)The Epilogue is short, but so poignant. Should you consider it a spoiler (although I don¿t believe that to be so in this case), be warned, for I copy half of it here:`Memory is fiction. We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives. Through photography and the written word I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evanesce, to untangle the confusion of my past. . . . In the end, the only thing we have in abundance is the memory we have woven. 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.¿Interesting story; well imagined and well told. I enjoyed it.
    elizabeth.a.coates on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was no Daughter of Fortune. After reading that one I was dying to get a hold of the sequal. Allende lacked originality with Portrait in Sepia. It was like she was unable to think of new characters so just repeated the archetypes used in her previous novel. While I still enjoyed the story overall it definitely wasn't as good as I was expecting.
    Nickelini on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A solid novel of historical fiction, set in late-19th century San Francisco and Chile. A family saga with interesting characters and some lovely descriptions of the Chilean countryside--Allende always gets me dreaming of traveling to South America. For readers who shy away from Allende because her masterpiece House of the Spirits is considered magic realism, relax--despite the plethora of misapplied tags here at LT, there is zero magic realism in this novel.
    debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Quite a ride! Portrait in Sepia is as enthralling as any American soap opera, with beautiful women and reluctant lovers and mismatched husbands and wives. Portrait in Sepia is more than a great tale with intriguing characters and inventive plot twists, though. It's also a thoughtful look at the blending of cultures and ethnicities and the difficulties and joys the blending brings.Note: I'd not realized Sepia is a sequel; I wish I'd known this and read Daughter of Fortune first.
    kraaivrouw on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I like Isabelle Allende. She's a wonderful storyteller of sweeping epics populated with people who might appear ordinary, but are far from it. Reading her books feels to me like sitting with my Mississippi grandmother & her sisters listening to their stories of my family's history (everybody's family has some magic in it).I enjoyed this book which tells the story of Aurora del Valle & the secrets her family kept from her. Throughout the story we meet the usual contingent of whacky aunts & uncles, gentlemen callers, & strong women who defy their time & society's limitations. The book was partly set in San Francisco & I liked that, too, although I think she writes about Chile with more conviction than she does about the Bay Area.I agree with those felt that this wasn't Allende's best work. Certainly when compared to The House of the Spirits or Eva Luna, it lacks something undefinable, but perhaps soul is the correct word. I was struck by the narrator's claim at the end:"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 telilng my life is closer to that of a portrait in sepia."Maybe that's the ultimate problem - this narrator's voice lacks the vibrancy of others the author has written. A good read, but not outstanding.
    Joycepa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Isabel Allende has written a trilogy of novels that span the history of Chile from 1843 to the 1960s. The first one she wrote, House of the Spirits, was actually the last in the series. Then came, in order of publication, Daughter of Fortune, which was chronologically the first, and introduced a family that would become important in the rest of the story. In 2001, she published the linchpin book, Portrait in Sepia, which spans the period from 1862 to pre-World War I.The hallmark of all these stories is the presence of strong women, all of whom defied the conventionality of the time and went on to do what they wanted with their lives. Although Portrait in Sepia is narrated by Aurora, the granddaughter of one of the characters who appears in Daughter of Fortune, the central character of the story is Paulina del Valle, an eccentric, imperious woman who is in incredibly sharp businesswoman, living in San Francisco at the story¿s opening. Eventually, she and Aurora live in Chile, surviving two wars.The history that forms the background against which the characters move is fascinating. Not only do we get the political and military history, but also the customs, attitudes and social mores of the various levels of Chilean society during that time.But nothing compares with the characters that Allende draws, especially the women, both conventional and non-conventional. It is through their eyes that we learn what is occurring politically, through their eyes that we see the outcomes, through their eyes that we observe the movers and shakers of Chile.Portrait in Sepia doesn¿t have any magical realism in it, but it doesn¿t need it--the events of the times are bizarre enough without any fabrication. And Allende can write. 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.Not only is she wonderfully descriptive, but powerfully imaginative, incorporating eccentric details into the story that leave you marveling.Portrait in Sepia is worth reading if only for the history, but the central characters are unforgettable, and some of them will go on to their fates in House of the Spirits .Highly recommended.
    mojomomma on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Daughter of Fortune is one my favorite books and this story is based on Eliza and Tao Chi'en's granddaughter, Aurora. She is effectively orphaned as a newborn and is raised first by her maternal and then her paternal grandparents, who move her to Chile. Aurora's story is interesting, but Aurora as a character lacks the strong personality of her more interesting grandmothers.
    mldg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    When I finished Allende's Daughter of Fortune, I was disappointed. I felt the story was not complete. Portrait in Sepia continues the story and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. There is a lot about Chilean history which I liked.
    bonneyandrews on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was a good book, but not as good as I expected. While it had an interesting story, it had few relevations about life in it. Perhaps being older and having read a lot, it just didn't speak to me at this stage of my life, but it impressed me more as a good historical novel about San Francisco and Chile, two areas I don't know much about. I will probably read other of her books, but not necessarily in any hurry. All that said, at least this was not a whitewashed view of history or a standard bestseller romance. It had some substance beyond the normal bestseller.
    shootingstarr7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    This was the first book that I read by Allende, and I'm not sure whether or not that was a good thing. While I very much enjoyed it, it hasn't led me to seek out other works by her. I found some of the situations to be far-fetched, but given the context of the time, they are not wholly out of place. I would say it's not essential to have read her previous works first, but from what I understand, they provide the backstory.
    cindyloumn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    LOVED this book. I love all the chracters and the twists and turns and how quirky they are. Sequal to "Fortunes Daughter". really like this author.
    lcrouch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I loved this book. It was fast-paced and riveting. It also "introduces" old friends from Allende's previous novels, bringing us full-circle.
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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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