Book: Daughter of Fortune
Author: Isabel Allende
Whatever I knew about Isabel Allende was from her TED talk titled Tales of Passion. It’s one of the six TED talks bundled under the category ‘How to tell a story’. Needless to say, it’s a fantastic talk, and she’s funny in equal measure. If nothing else, you must watch it for how she describes her 4 minutes of fame during the Winter Olympics with Sophia Loren. The key to looking good even at that age, as prescribed by Loren, is good posture.
And then, I read her historical novel, Daughter of Fortune, in a hurried attempt to get ahead on my reading challenge for this year. After I read this novel, I realized two stark things: 1) Reading fiction on my Kindle is not as difficult as I thought. I mean, this is a 432-page book. 2) It’s possible to get scared by the level of detail in this book.
Daughter of Fortune opens in one of the most predictable ways. In 1843, a baby girl is found at the doorstep of the Sommers’ home in Valparaiso, Chile. The girl is taken in, named Eliza and brought up by Rose Sommers, a spinster of great courage and well-kept by her brothers, Jeremy and John Sommers. The brothers work with the British Import and Export Company. John is a captain on a ship and Jeremy works for the company on the dock. This book is the journey of Eliza’s life, or so I think because, well, that’s the name of the novel. However, it belongs to all other characters just as much. Eliza is raised in the English colony of Chile, with all the experiences and opportunities that a girl of her age from a respectable family should get. Mama Fresia, their cook looks after like her own
Eliza is raised in the English colony of Chile, with all the experiences and opportunities that a girl of her age from a respectable and well-to-do family should get. Mama Fresia, their cook, looks after like her own child. Eliza gets the finest clothes, lessons in piano, cooking, reading and writing, and gifts from lands across high seas. Miss Rose demands her brothers to contribute to the savings that will go as Eliza’s dowry, and they do so with dedication. The Sommers’ leave no item in the list unchecked to provide Eliza a wholesome life.
All of this, until the time Eliza turns 16 and falls in love with a worker from her uncle’s company. Joaquin Andieta reciprocates her infatuation in the armories of the Sommers’ home and in eloquent love letters for Eliza. And then, everyone in the world leaves what they were doing and turn their eyes to San Francisco when the spotlight falls on the Californian Gold Rush. So does Joaquin Andieta. He leaves Valparaiso for California leaving behind his terminal mother and a pregnant Eliza. Eliza simply follows him.
It’s easy to relegate this story to that of Eliza’s journey to find the love of her life. It comes as no surprise once you see Allende’s TED talk. She asserts her characters need to have passion, and Eliza does. But it’s much more remarkable how all the other characters have their own screen space along with individual passions.
This story is also about Tao Chi’en – the Asian who comes to the Sommers’ acquaintance while serving as a cook on John Sommers’ ship. Tao Chi’en is actually a healer who travels to Chile all the way from China leaving behind a family where he had no identity, his dead master, and a dead wife. The precision with Tao’s story is said makes one believe that this is not a Spanish tale, but a Chinese one. The level of detail is nothing short of fascinating. Tao lives in China, then Hong Kong where he meets an English doctor with whom he swaps the knowledge of healing, and then travels to Chile with John after he loses his wife. I have particularly loved the parts which Allende has described Tao’s relationship with his master and the years of apprenticeship. Tao and Eliza meet at the Sommers’ home, and he helps Eliza travel to California hiding inside a ship where she almost dies. It is then, that begins the pursuit of Joaquin Andieta and the mystery of the person Eliza Sommers sets out to be.
Tao and Eliza meet at the Sommers’ home, and he helps Eliza travel to California hiding inside a ship where she almost dies. It is then, that begins the mystery of Joaquin Andieta and the pursuit of the person Eliza Sommers sets out to be.
The novel shifts in and out taking everyone’s story forward. Allende has described Miss Rose’s story and her secrets. She has given enough space to the narrative of the shrewd Paulina who, after running away from a convent to marry her lover, turns into one of the finest businessmen of Chile who collaborates with John Sommers. She also tells us about Jacob Todd, one of Miss Rose’s suitors who is shamed away from Chile and starts afresh in San Fransisco, because, well, America is the country of freedom and you can be whoever you want to be. There’s enough space for the appearance of spirits, the exquisite recipes and cooking, and the unmissable historical and geographical detail of China, Hong Kong, Chile, London, and California. I read that Allende was a journalist and it seems that everything she researched during her seven years for this novel has been put to good use.
Although tedious in some places, I found the pull of ‘what’s going to happen next’ very forceful while reading this book. It made me labor through some, very large passages of description, that maybe I could have done without. But almost always they made me sit up and notice at the attention to detail in talking about so many cultures. There are enough surprises and jumps in the book as well. But what makes this book a 5 rater is how, in spite of being so detailed, Allende manages to hold the reader’s attention, and rewards patience. The climax supplies for a lovely debate, which I am up for if anyone has read the book.
It’s all well worth it.
P.S: I wish the book cover was much better.