Review: Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende
Harper/Perennial, 2000. 399 pp. $15
“Any man, as miserable a man as he may be, can do whatever he wants with you.” But Eliza Sommers, a vivacious sixteen-year-old, doesn’t believe this dire prediction, which means, of course, that she’ll have to live it out to learn in her own way.
Since this is the late 1840s in Valparaíso, Chile, and Eliza’s a foundling child to English guardians, her stubborn belief in romantic passion pits her against a strict Victorian code. If her adoptive parents have anything to say about it, Eliza will be safely married off to a respectable, established, older man, the most she can hope for, especially given her shameful origins. Not that her foster mother, Rose, has much to say for marriage, having never tried it herself. “All husbands are boring,” she says. “No woman with an ounce of sense gets married to be entertained, she marries to be maintained.”
However, Eliza begins a clandestine affair with Joaquín, a dirt-poor young man of electric presence, who bolts for California when news of the gold strike of 1849 reaches Valparaíso. Be it known that Joaquín isn’t worth two minutes of Eliza’s time. Writer of floridly passionate letters, he’s disappointing in person, lecturing her about revolution and redistribution of wealth–when he bothers to talk, that is. Mostly, he uses her for sex, not bothering to wonder whether she has needs or desires, leaving her more hurt and frustrated than she realizes. But since Eliza’s fated to be trapped, she lets herself get swept up. Or so Allende asks us to believe.
I’m not sure I do, entirely. Eliza has wanted freedom all her life, but that’s not what Joaquín represents, despite his political soapboxing, a wonderful irony that utterly escapes her–and keeps escaping her well past any credible sell-by date.
In the Sommers’ home she had lived shut up within four walls, in a stagnant atmosphere where time moved in circles and where she could barely glimpse the horizon through distorted windowpanes. She had grown up clad in the impenetrable armor of good manners and conventions, trained from girlhood to please and serve, bound by corset, routines, social norms, and fear.
But this is a novel, and the requisite wise woman has said that Eliza is doomed to suffer. So the girl bends her considerable resourcefulness and courage to follow Joaquín to California, managing to stow away through the aid of Tao Ch’ien, a Chinese doctor, who becomes her friend and mentor.
In California, he tries to protect Eliza from herself, with intermittent success. I liked this part of Daughter of Fortune the best, starting with the descriptions of the hard life, frontier justice, and greed, but also what the gold rush offers, the chance to be free and make something of oneself. Eliza embraces it wholeheartedly, thanks in part to the passing parade of larger-than-life characters, who prompt her to live larger herself. Along the way, Allende makes excellent observations about what love means for powerless women, and how pride, male and female, gets in the way of intimacy.
I dislike her habit of explaining motivations at length, however beautifully she writes (as with the quote above). More annoying is how she reveals secrets out of the blue, as if, by clapping her hands, she can avoid having to unfold them in her narrative. Whatever reversals of story or character they imply simply happen–poof. She does this twice, and each feels like a cheap conjuring trick, as if to tell the reader, Fooled you!
Nevertheless, Daughter of Fortune is a wild ride, entertaining, vivid, and colorful. I’m impressed at how Allende renders the gold rush in many, complex facets, and, except for Eliza’s obsession with Joaquín, how the author explores the many layers of love and attraction.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.