Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On "Daughter of Fortune" by Isabel Allende

A strange character, this Isabel Allende. The International Net tells me that she is a cousin of the former president of her country, and has repeatedly had to flee political persecution. I would not have guessed this about her, based on this optimistic little book, brimming over almost to the point of disbelief with happiness and hope in the face of dire circumstances. I intend to read more of her later, but for now, let me speak of Daughter of Fortune.

The story concerns a young Chilean lady of means named Eliza and her early romance with a boy named Juaquin Andieta. When Juaquin goes to California to pursue gold in order to win his fortune and her hand, Eliza follows him there, hoping that they can make a life together in America. However, this line of plot does not begin until several chapters in, as the second chapter delves into the life of a more minor character, a young man named Jacob Todd who courted Eliza's foster mother Rose seven years before most of the events of the story. We watch Todd go from a practical Bible salesman to an idealist missionary who, when it comes right down to it, would prefer not to do anything. We learn about his foibles, his deep abiding love for Rose, and his disgrace once word gets out that he has been squandering the money donated for his mission. And then Mister Todd gets on a boat, and we do not see him again for nearly two hundred pages.

This is one of the appealing things about Mrs. Allende's writing, if you like this style--which I do: her willingness to plunge almost haphazardly in and out of the lives of her characters. Within the span of this one small volume, the reader forms an intimate relationship with almost everybody. Eliza's foster uncles remain closed books, but everyone else, from Eliza to her Chinaman friend to a gruff madam she meets in the desert in California--all of these people become our acquaintances and intimate friends. Allende opens the doors to their lives and invites us to wander in and out.

The landscape of the novel, from Chile to California, is breathtaking.  The beauty and horrors of life in Gold Rush-era San Francisco are Mrs. Allende's obvious passion, and she lingers lovingly over descriptions of crowded streets, yellow-streamered Chinese restaurants, hilltop mansions and emprisoning whorehouses alike. This novel is a romance, but it is not a romance of human love as much as it is an apostrophe to California, to the frontier, and to the squalid beauty of human desires, from greed to love to the yearning for freedom. Mrs. Allende's writing style is realistic but manages to encompass something of the magical as well, a most singular style that I am told emerged from the harsh political climates of South America. I am told that if I like her, I should also read a Mister Marquez. I wonder if perhaps he inherited the style from her.

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