Daughter of Fortune

Daughter of Fortune

by Isabel Allende

Published by HarperCollins

397 pages, 1999


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Her Fortune's Mistress

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Daughter of Fortune is a quiet epic, masterfully wrought. In her eighth book, Isabel Allende brings us the fictional story Eliza Sommers, a powerful, unconventional woman who carves a place for herself in gold-torn San Francisco. Eliza is a foundling who is discovered in the garden of a British family living in Valparaiso, Chile in the middle of the 1800s. The child is found in a Marseilles soap crate and wrapped in a man's sweater. The sweater is the only clue -- as it turns out -- to the child's parentage.

Though the focus throughout Daughter of Fortune is mainly on Eliza, we meet other fascinating characters as well. Eliza's Aunt Rose is a woman of contradictions and contrasts. A love affair in her youth altered her perception of her own modern reality. Unable to find a partner to meet the expectations formed by her youthful dalliance with a married man, Rose opts to stay unmarried and take the role of chatelaine in her brother's home. It is Rose that insists that she and Jonathan adopt the foundling child into their home and raise her as they would a daughter of the house.

The definitive metamorphosis of Eliza took place two years after Jacob Todd's departure. From the angular little bug she had been in childhood she was transformed into a girl with soft curves and delicate face. Under the tutelage of Miss Rose, she spent the unpleasant years of her puberty balancing a book on her head and studying piano, at the same time growing native herbs in Mama Fresia's garden and learning age-old recipes for curing known maladies and others yet to be learned, including mustard for an indifference to everyday life, hydrangea leaves for ripening tumors and restoring laughter, violets for enduring loneliness, and verbena, which she put in Miss Rose's soup because this noble plant cures the vagaries of bad humor.

Tao Chi'en is a healer who we are first introduced to in his native China. He's Shanghaied onto a boat bound for points unknown. Eliza and Tao Chi'en meet when, as a teenager, Eliza wants to follow her lover, Joaquin, to the California gold fields. Tao Chi'en smuggles her onto the boat and -- during the weeks of the voyage -- the two form a friendship that will last both of their lifetimes. In a San Francisco dazzled and swollen with gold fever, the odd pair bond.

It was, in fact, those very differences that were the greatest source of amusement; he couldn't believe that a woman would do and say such outlandish things. He would watch her with inexpressible curiosity and tenderness; he was tongue-tied with admiration for her, and in his mind granted her the courage of a warrior, but if he saw her at a vulnerable moment she seemed a child and he was overcome with a desire to protect her.

In all of this tightly written and highly enjoyable story, the portions dealing with San Francisco at the height of the 1849 gold rush delighted me the most. While much has been written about both the area and the era, there has been very little I've seen created outside of the American perspective. To see it from non-American eyes is at once sobering and refreshing.

In September of 1850, Tao was present at the noisy patriotic celebration when California became the newest state in the union. The American nation took in the whole continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By then the fever for gold was beginning to take the shape of enormous collective disillusion, and Tao saw masses of debilitated and impoverished miners waiting their turns to sail back where they had come from. The newspapers estimated that more than ninety thousand were going home. Sailors were no longer deserting; on the contrary, there weren't enough ships to carry everyone who wanted to leave. One out of every five miners had died, of disease, cold, or drowning in the rivers; many were murdered or had shot themselves in the head. Foreigners were still coming, having embarked months earlier, but the gold was no longer within easy reach of any bold adventurer with a pan, shovel, and a pair of boots.

Isabel Allende is rapidly growing a reputation as one of the world's strongest voices. Someone to watch in the international world of letters. She is the author of The House of the Spirits, Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, The Infinite Plan, The Stories of Eva Luna, Paula (her memoir) and the bestselling Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses which is frequently compared to Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses. Daughter of Fortune was written in Spanish and suffers not at all under a sterling translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. Sayers Peden has translated other of Allende's work as well as those of Jose Enrique Rodo, Carlos Fuentes, Horacio Quiroga, Pablo Neruda and other noted Latin writers. | September 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.