June 10, 2007

Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune

Daughter of Fortune:  A Novel (Mass Market Paperback)Oprah Book Club® Selection, February 2000: Until Isabel Allende burst onto the scene with her 1985 debut, The House of the Spirits, Latin American fiction was, for the most part, a boys' club comprising such heavy hitters as Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Mario Vargas Llosa. But the Chilean Allende shouldered her way in with her magical realist multi-generational tale of the Trueba family, followed it up with four more novels and a spate of nonfiction, and has remained in a place of honor ever since. Her sixth work of fiction, Daughter of Fortune, shares some characteristics with her earlier works: the canvas is wide, the characters are multi-generational and multi-ethnic, and the protagonist is an unconventional woman who overcomes enormous obstacles to make her way in the world. Yet one cannot accuse Allende of telling the same story twice; set in the mid-1800s, this novel follows the fortunes of Eliza Sommers, Chilean by birth but adopted by a British spinster, Rose Sommers, and her bachelor brother, Jeremy, after she is abandoned on their doorstep.

"You have English blood, like us," Miss Rose assured Eliza when she was old enough to understand. "Only someone from the British colony would have thought to leave you in a basket on the doorstep of the British Import and Export Company, Limited. I am sure they knew how good-hearted my brother Jeremy is, and felt sure he would take you in. In those days I was longing to have a child, and you fell into my arms, sent by God to be brought up in the solid principles of the Protestant faith and the English language."
The family servant, Mama Fresia, has a different point of view, however: "You, English? Don't get any ideas, child. You have Indian hair, like mine." And certainly Eliza's almost mystical ability to recall all the events of her life would seem to stem more from the Indian than the Protestant side.

As Eliza grows up, she becomes less tractable, and when she falls in love with Joachin Andieta, a clerk in Jeremy's firm, her adoptive family is horrified. They are even more so when a now-pregnant Eliza follows her lover to California where he has gone to make his fortune in the 1849 gold rush. Along the way Eliza meets Tao Chi'en, a Chinese doctor who saves her life and becomes her closest friend. What starts out as a search for a lost love becomes, over time, the discovery of self; and by the time Eliza finally catches up with the elusive Joachin, she is no longer sure she still wants what she once wished for. Allende peoples her novel with a host of colorful secondary characters. She even takes the narrative as far afield as China, providing an intimate portrait of Tao Chi'en's past before returning to 19th-century San Francisco, where he and Eliza eventually fetch up. Readers with a taste for the epic, the picaresque, and romance that is satisfyingly complex will find them all in Daughter of Fortune.

--Margaret Prior
Comment:  Just finished reading (actually, listening to) this book by the author of Zorro. It's similar to Zorro in scope, style, and quality, and you may recall how I raved about Zorro. It's another multicultural marvel and definitely worth your time.

I wouldn't call Daughter of Fortune a Native-themed book because the Native presence is muted. But Eliza's mother is Chilean, so she's part Native. More important, Eliza's upbringing is a tug-of-war between Rose, the Englishwoman who represents intellect, artificiality, and constraint, and Mama Fresia, the Indian woman who represents passion, genuineness, and freedom.

When Eliza escapes to America, the land of opportunity, her Indian side comes to the fore. Like the Californians around her, she learns to eschew antiquated concepts such as honor, propriety, and convention. In other words, she throws off the shackles of European civilization and becomes a "noble savage."

The only reason I rate Daughter of Fortune an 8.0 rather than an 8.5 like Zorro is because the ending was a little weak. As the book approached the finish, I was wondering how Allende was going to tie up the loose ends in the space left. Answer: She didn't. This book could easily warrant a sequel or at least another 3-4 chapters to wrap up the characters' stories.

P.S. Read here for more reviews of Daughter of Fortune.

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