Isabel Allende is one of the many authors that I have first came across in my university studies and thanks to some amazing professors I had, who made sure we read and had access to many different voices writing in English. In my class, I have read ‘House of Spirits’ and fell in love with Allende’s storytelling and way of creating multigenerational narratives of amazingly well written characters. When a friend told me about a second hand book store, Allende’s ‘Portrait in Sepia’ was one of the books I decided to buy there and I did not regret it all.
After buying this book and doing some research into it, I found out that it was actually considered a sequel to ‘Daughter of Fortune’ as it follows the next generation to that described in the first novel. I have not read that novel and was able to follow the plot lines easily, but there were some references to characters that I did not understand and were probably described in the first novel. If you have not read them, I would suggest starting with ‘Daughter of Fortune’ before this one.
The plot of the novel is told by Aurora del Valle, now a thirty-something year old woman who is trying to understand her heritage that was hidden from her at least in some part. Because of this, the story actually begins before she was even born, in the time of her paternal grandmother and her life. After that, it follows several generations of del Valle family and their lives in China, California, Chile and to a degree in the UK. For me, some plot points were more engaging and interesting than others, but overall, Allende’s storytelling always shines through and every story has its own place and reason for existing. Allende also includes a lot of real life historical events and circumstances in her 19th century narrative that makes us understand the characters, their motivation and actions.
Most notably, as the most of the main characters are women, there is no shortage of interesting female characters, starting from our narrator Aurora del Valle. She is described as ridiculously shy woman, haunted by her nightmares that were later revealed to be caused by severe trauma that happened to her in early childhood. However, through her grandmother’s influence and her own strengths and talents, Aurora does manage to carve a good place for her in her life, going against the expected position of a woman at a time. Her grandmothers on both sides are also formidable women, each in their own right. Although brief, the relationship between them is full of respect and understanding, in a place where that kind of attitude is not expected. Additionally, even side characters, like Amanda Lowell are wonderful and full of life. This novel offers so many wonderful well-developed female characters who disagree with each other and each stands in her own right, I do not know which one I like more, even if I could not full relate to or understand.
Male characters do not really take a center stage a lot, but they too are well-developed and full of life. They are completely different, with different ideologies and ways of life that each of them almost jumped out of the page. I am not sure if they were inspired by any real life figures, but they felt very realistic and life like. The relationship between Paulina and her second husband made my heart warm, as it was maybe not based on love, but was surely based on respect and understanding that sure felt a lot like love.
But, as much as I loved all of these aspects, there were some things that I did not enjoy as much. First of all, because of the nature of the narration, the entire novel was a big ‘tell, no show’, which did not leave a lot of room for interpretation and everything was served on the platter. There was some foreshadowing as well that did not fully work for me either. However, that was just Allende’s way of writing, and as I have mentioned before, I think she is a brilliant storyteller, so I did not mind it as much. The biggest issue I had was the attitude towards the indigenous people of Chile and South America overall. I am not sure if the intention was to show Aurora’s attitude and not necessarily what is right, but some of the statements left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Similarly, the kind of fetishization of Asian people, especially Chinese was present. Again, the story is set in the 19th century USA and Chile, so it could very well be that Allende tried to present the attitudes present in that time, but I am not sure if I really appreciated that.
When it comes to intercultural components of the novel, there is a lot of different cultures included in the novel, some presented more successfully than the others. As a person from Balkans, I really did appreciate an inclusion of a man from the Balkans and his presentation as a pretty decent and gentle person. Additionally, I think that the character of Tao Chi’en, a Chinese man and his philosophy was really lovely and I genuinely enjoyed reading about this gentle and honorable man as well as his relationship with his wife and family. It is through the individual members of different cultures and their beliefs that Allende most successfully includes intercultural.
Overall, because of the reasons I outlined above, I scored this 4/5 on goodreads. I will definitely continue to read Allende’s work, as I find her prose and storytelling magnificent. What are your thoughts on this book if you have read it? What do you think about Allende’s writing?