There is absolutely no good reason why this is the first Isabel Allende book I have ever picked up. The blurbs on the back and the countless positive reviews I have heard from family, friends and bloggers should surely have been enough?! My only explanation is that, out of the two Allende novels I own, one; La casa de los espíritus (The House of the Spirits) is in Spanish (and although I am always far too lazy to pick it up I can’t bring myself to buy the English since I can technically read it in the original language!) and the second, Daughter of Fortune, which I have finally got round to reading has been bizarrely neglected due to the off-putting ‘Not for resale’ sticker from The Times on the back and the fact that as a result I see this newspaper freebie in every single charity shop I step in.
What a fool I am, and what a wonderful book this turned out to be, although in fairness I expected no less. Like many novels, this is a grand love story that, despite the typical 19th century male figures bounding around, is notable for its admirable, strong female characters. Above all we grow to know and love a young woman called Eliza, our unlikely heroine. Abandoned on the doorstep of a family in the port town of Valparaiso, Eliza is found by Rose Sommers, a young, vibrant single woman and sister to one of the wealthiest men in town. The first half of the book is devoted to the cloister-like environment Eliza’s adopted family wall up around her, her life enriched by the formal tutelage she receives from Rose and the more practical facts of life imparted on her by her ‘Mama Fresia’, the household cook who becomes like a second Mother to the young girl.
However, the catalyst for the adventure that Eliza is soon to embark on soon arrives in the form of Joaquin Andieta, an employee of the Sommers who she quickly falls hopelessly in love with. True to the real life history of towns throughout South America such as Valparaiso in the 1840s/50s, a discovery made by a carpenter working in the American river in California led to thousands rushing up North to pan for gold and seek out their fortunes. In Allende’s tale Andieta ends up as one of these men and Eliza, blinded by love and deaf to the warnings of her Indian protectress promptly stows away on a boat bound for San Francisco to find him.
This is a story set on a grand scale, with our main protagonist travelling the length of an entire continent to find her man. However, it is precisely because of this grand scale, with the fascinating characters worthy of such a setting that I felt that this book could have either been much longer or, alternatively, the first half of the book that explore Eliza’s background and home in Chile much shorter. For instance, I really didn’t need to read as much about Jacob Todd, the English gentleman who arrives in Chile intent on selling as many Bibles as possible, as I eventually ended up having to, because although he is present for one or two key moments in the second half of the novel I found him a rather inconsequential character. I would have much rather have continued on Eliza’s journey towards discovery and develop her relationship with the fascinating Chinese physician Tao Chi’en, who becomes an unlikely companion and close friend throughout this entire adventure.
History is another secret passion of mine and I have to say that, prior to reading this novel, where Allende has clearly gone into a great deal of depth on the subject, I knew very little about the California Gold Rush and the huge number of different cultures that were thrown together in the hastily built town of San Francisco, which clearly became a true melting pot of races and innumerable vices.
I picked this book up about a year ago and unfortunately lost my way during one of the chapters where we are taken back to Tao Chi’en’s life in China that should have been extremely interesting had it not jarred a little with the progression of Eliza’s story. I am however glad I gave this another go, and even happier that I was ignorant of this book’s status as an Oprah book club choice which may have put me off further as I hate to follow the crowd and prefer to discover books in my own time and am weary of the recommendations of TV presenters and the like. This is essentially a tale of self-discovery and a deep exploration of feminine sexuality, something that every young woman I’m sure can connect with. She is a heroine in the truest sense of the word and a gutsy character given the time this book is set in. Any of us who have experienced the joys of being in love can also appreciate the lengths a woman will go to in a moment of passion to rediscover that feeling and I felt very close to and protective of Eliza as a result.
My only complaint is that I needed more…this book trickled off towards the end for me and I’ve been left wondering what the next ten chapters could have been if only Allende had carried on writing…
**N.B. I’m quite sensitive to books in translation and this rendering into English of Allende’s original Spanish is excellent. Bravo Margaret Peden.**