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Isabelle Allende

Rush of Fortune

A young woman confronts cultural conflicts in Isabelle Allende's new novel

By Joëlle Vitiello

Daughter of Fortune
By Isabel Allende (translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden)
Harper Collins; 399 pages; $26 cloth

ISABELLE ALLENDE'S fifth novel, Daughter of Fortune, recounts the adventures of a young woman of unknown origins in mid-19th century colonial Brazil, and her unconventional journey to California at the time of the Gold Rush. As in all of Allende's books, the protagonist is a spirited young woman who displays strength in the face of adversity while being a woman of great passion.

Eliza Sommers is raised by Rose Sommers, a well-intentioned British woman aware of her status in colonial society. Eliza spends most of her time with a servant, a native Indian, who shares her stories and customs. This double exposure gives Eliza the ability to move between cultures and use both to her benefit. It also creates the desire to transgress rules set in the two worlds she is in touch with. But Eliza's origins are kept secret from her (at least during the span of the narrative).

Eliza's mixed heritage, that of a native Chilean and of a British captain from an upper-crust family, serves as the frame for a complex plot about Western and non-Western cultural interactions. Contrasts between colonizer and native, modernity and tradition, higher- and lower-class positions, self-indulgent and self-denying attitudes abound and lead to Eliza's eventual self-discovery.

Eliza endures both joyful and painful journeys across gender--posing as a man on more than one occasion--class and culture. Each experience underlines Eliza's indomitable spirit and her will to follow her passions.

Meanwhile, Eliza's great forbidden love for a young revolutionary man mirrors her adoptive mother's first carnal and sentimental affair with a married man, an affair that led Rose to Chile in order to escape the disapproval of British society. Each character starts anew at least once or is in constant movement between geographical zones, adapting to new situations and adjusting his or her value system--whether it is to escape the past or build a future.

Eliza's wise companion Tao Chi'en, for example, starts out as a nameless child in his family being trained by a traditional Chinese healer. He later becomes a desperate widower and finally ends up being kidnapped by Captain John Sommers.

Daughter of Fortune describes how the consequences of coming into contact with other cultures can create valuable dialogue--even when it is initiated through violence. The best example in the novel concerns the curiosity and collaborative experiences between Chinese healers and European doctors. Even though this intercultural exchange is insufficiently developed, it is one of the most intriguing passages of the book.

The story is also about the construction of California as a new El Dorado during the Gold Rush era. Allende, who lives in the Bay Area, hints at the state's early economic development while portraying the cultural and racial struggles between settlers and travelers of various classes. She describes a time rich with possibilities for freedom, especially for strong, independent women. At the same time, there were limitations due to greed, violence, sexual slavery and racism.

Allende excels in the powerful descriptions of the Chilean port of Valparaiso and its society, the burlesque of life on the road with nomadic prostitutes and the Gold Rush culture. Because Allende is so good at describing ordinary qualities and making them magical, it is unfortunate that she teases the reader with interesting details and then leaves them undeveloped.

For instance, Eliza's memory and her great sense of smell are emphasized at the beginning. While we expect that Eliza's exceptional sensory trait will develop into something original--especially after the rich passages about Eliza's sensual cooking--we never find out how these qualities affect her.

Meanwhile, Allende also tends to include implausible details that don't add anything substantial to the narrative and that betray stereotypes--such as one character who traces his sexual prowess directly to the Marquis de Sade through a convoluted genealogy. Despite loose ends and leads that are not pursued--at the reader's expense--Daughter of Fortune presents a remarkable portrayal of the diversity that contributed to the development of California culture.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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