In 2020, I felt like I saw Isabel Allende popping up everywhere. She stays relevant by having a presence in pop culture, making guest appearances in major television shows like Jane the Virgin, in which she confronted her own real life trauma for the purpose of helping a character deal with her own. It was an incredibly moving and pivotal moment in the show that helped illustrate literature’s important place in helping us make sense of the incomprehensible tragedies of life. As an avid reader, I find it strange that I made it to the age of 36 without having picked up one of her books, so I added her to my TBR ASAP list.
Daughter of Fortune follows Eliza Sommers, a young Chilean woman left on the doorstep of Jeremy and Rose Sommers, a brother and sister who reside in the British colony of Valparaiso in Chile. She’s raised by Rose with the help of Mama Fresia, the native Chilean cook who helps out at the Sommers estate. Eliza grows up in these dichotomous worlds, both a lady of culture and style and one of resourcefulness with a lust for adventure and knowledge. The novel spans time from the early 19th century in Valparaiso through the mid-1800’s at the height of the California Gold Rush that sees our young heroine set off for California by herself in search of her lover, the idealistic Joaquin Andieta. The novel finds Eliza facing harrowing obstacles, instantly forcing her to confront the bounds of her own perseverance. By her side on her quest is a Chinese healer, Tao Chi’en, a grieving sailor who was duped into a sailing contract by the captain of a ship sailing for Chile despite his successful career as a zhong yi, or a Chinese physician. Though they both are in search of a specific kind of deliverance, they will each discover their destinies are not what they had originally expected.
Allende is considered a leading author in the genre of magical realism. I would place this book more into the category of straight historical fiction. Sure, there’s a bit of the fantastical here. An example would be the presence of Tao Chi’en’s dead wife, a ghostly presence that follows him and provides counsel from time to time. However, it’s purely up to reader interpretation as to whether or not Lin is actually present or is just a figment of Tao’s imagination meant to help him cope with the stress of his new life. Overall, this novel presents a realistic look at the difficulties and hardships of the North American frontier as immigrants from all over the globe converged on California in pursuit of the all consuming obsession that was gold. Allende is not overly verbose. She gets to the point. Her prose is as raw as the California landscape in the 1840’s, quite effortlessly beautiful when warranted, though more than a little harsh. This was a time that either saw people flourish or become consumed by the ill-tempered fury of the times. People either relented under the pressure of pain, prejudice, lust or vengeance, or they became stronger, more compassionate, more willing to come to the aid of their fellow humans, if they survived at all.
Prejudice was rampant, ignorance of other cultures mixed with greed and desperation pitted immigrants against one other instead of bringing them together, but occasionally ignorance could be displaced to make way for more temperate humanistic principles. Tao Chi’en was an excellent example of this. I thought he had a very believable and refreshing character arc. At first, I cringed at his belief systems, though they were extremely authentic to someone who had grown up in China during this period. I enjoyed seeing the softening of his heart and his ascent into a more progressive outlook on life. The way his developing relationships with the women in his life, especially Eliza, opened his eyes to truths he hadn’t previously considered. In turn, Eliza experienced the same awakening. Following them along this journey allowed me to more intimately know both of them. Character development is Allende’s strongest attribute as an author, judging by this book. Each and every character breathed life and took shape. They were authentic, and every character experienced the kind of growth you’d expect from a saga such as this. They all experienced in their own ways that human expectation rarely becomes reality. Rather, real and lasting contentment often lies in the setting aside of expectations and finding that purpose you never knew you needed.
Thematically, this is a very important book. You can glean from the title, Daughter of Fortune, that you’re probably going to encounter at least one strong woman. Allende is very open about the fact that she writes about strong women. She writes fiction that celebrates them, the obstacles they encounter, and the sacrifices they are forced to make simply because they are raised in a world that teaches them their sex is an affliction. She writes about women who defy societal norms to live their truth, to take what they know the world owes them without regard to the people who say women were born to give and never to dream of something of their own. It’s difficult to believe, at times, that Eliza is no more than a teenager when she boards a ship by herself headed for the coast of California. While her decisions are the rash and foolish decisions of a teen, she also throws herself headlong into the task of survival with the maturity and poise of a woman four times her age.
This book contains some very dark themes, like the sex trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of prostitution during the Gold Rush, a time in which few women traveled to California willingly. We experience first-hand the blatant disregard for them as humans, and the tragic end that befell a large percentage of these unlucky women, not only because of their gender but because of their low socioeconomic status. Sadly, this is a world even we still contend with to this day. This book also is quite relevant in today’s environment, as it deals with issues of gender identity. Additionally, we are introduced to a common theme in historical fiction from this time period, the fickleness and pure pretension of English high society in the 1800’s. Corresponding with this is the dangerous high-wire act that all high society people were forced to perform for the sheer purpose of ensuring their place among the respected few. One misstep could mean utter disgrace. Which begs us to reconsider the meaning of the word fortune. Is one born to the fortune of money and comfort, or does one discover the fortune of enlightenment and self reliance? While I may not have the fortune of a bank account bursting at the seams, I did have the good fortune of reading this book.
This novel is a part of a series. On its own, I found myself a bit let down by the conclusion. One important plot point is addressed, probably the most vital of all. That’s a positive thing. There were some other details for which I would have liked to have received closure, but since I haven’t yet read the sequel I’m not sure if closure is in the cards. Then again, I always feel a bit bad as a reader making this quibble. As we see most of the events in this book unfolding through the eyes of Eliza, and sometimes Rose Sommers, we are a bit limited in scope of the information we glean. This is natural. This is a reasonable. A woman who boards a boat in the mid-nineteenth century set for California would probably not learn the fate of a certain character she left behind in Chile, for example. She would have to live her entire life without closure. Therefore, it’s only natural I would have to come to terms with that as well. Still, lack of closure often sits a little hollow in my chest and leaves me feeling uneasy. If you’re the kind of person who absolutely detests that kind of thing, you might not enjoy this one, but I will tell you it’s mild. Just a very small twinge of disappointment and a wish to follow the story a bit further. This is still a very worth-while read, and a fabulous book. 4.5 stars.
Pub. date: May 10 2005 by Harper Audio; ISBN: 10060833874; Runtime 13 hrs, 19 min, Read by: Blair Brown.