fiction, review

Daughter of Fortune

Indonesian edition’s cover

Craving for more Isabel Allende’s works, I grabbed Daughter of Fortune and went into it with so much excitement. First published in 1999, it should have been, I’d rather say, the prequel of Allende’s previous phenomenon, The House of the Spirits. It’s never too late to write a prequel, though, if this book is really meant to be one, and the result is not at all less impressive. This time, Allende goes back way far to the era of the Gold Rush in California and presents the so-called “magical realism” in a culturally different way than that of I found in The House of the Spirits. The blend of history, feminism, and cross-cultural love story combine well with Allende’s trademark style of writing and produce a stunning prose which I believe, though cannot be said to be better, is of the same quality.

The story is about Eliza, an orphan girl with unknown parents, who is dropped irresponsibly in the Sommers family’s lap. The prim English lot raises her like one of their own and makes her into a lady of manner. But her strict upbringing doesn’t stop her from falling badly in love with a low-born labor man, by the name of Joaquín Andieta. She determines from the very first time that he is her first and forever love, and soon they involve in a passionate forbidden love affair. It’s not long, however, before the news of the gold rush spreads rapidly over Chile, and everyone is charmed by the promise of a better life and instant wealth. Every man is ready to go to California to find their fate and dig some precious gold, and Joaquín is no exception. Pregnant, Eliza decides to go following her love to the North America two months later with the help of a Chinese cook working for her adopted uncle, Captain John Sommers. The said cook, Tao Chi’en, thinks that this Latin girl must be crazy enough to go across the dangerous sea just to see her unthinking boyfriend, but he can’t helplessly say no when Eliza asks him to smuggle her into the ship he is about to go aboard. So he agrees and they sail right away to the land of gold, but they don’t know that Eliza’s reckless request will lead to different circumstance they innocently expect to deal with.

As always, Allende describes her every creation of a character with some uniqueness and unusual way of portrayal. I was particularly interested in the likes of Ms. Sommers and her opposing brothers. Their naturally different viewpoints and behaviors create the ever so quiet dynamics of the family, making it seem so normal on the outside yet so flaring up inside. The presence of Eliza in their household doesn’t seem very much significant, though, nor is it more determining once she sets foot in California and the narrative goes on to reveal her and Tao Chi’en’s struggling life among the forty-niners. Instead, Tao Chi’en seems to steal the whole show with his wisdom and compassion and cultural background. Some readers may have an objection to reading two full chapters about Tao Chi’en and a long elaboration on the winding road he takes to become the great traditional healer that he is, but, to my thinking, by elaborating his background more Allende seems to want to assert her “magical realism” type of prose. So, in a way, I can say that through the character of Tao Chi’en, Allende emits her magical/spiritual ideas.

After reading, and comprehending, the entire narrative, my overall impression of Daughter of Fortune is that it’s not a love story, despite the loving connection between Eliza and Tao Chi’en. If we look at it closely, it has so many integrated ideas: the famous history of the Gold Rush in California, the racial conflicts occurred during those times, women of that period and the lives they have to live, wisdom and knowledge. By analogy, it is some kind of salad consisting of several ingredients complete with some delicious dressing of complicated love saga. However, what caught my attention most during my reading it was its vague presentation of women’s problems in that particular time of history. In a period where women were being put through some strict rules and social restrictions, either in the Western or Eastern society, the fair sex had not many choices to take, only a few decisions to make, and not enough room to breathe. Either they ended up being married or being a spinster, there was not much they could do. Other choices could be worse than anything else: sold to become a prostitute or a slave. Most of them did not have the power to say no and doomed to live under patriarchal rules and guide. This is, as far as I understand, what is mirrored in the blunt character of Ms. Sommers and Eliza’s letter to Tao Chi’en:

“Being a man is boring, but being a woman is even worse.”

Daughter of Fortune, I would say, is very well written, a typical trait which never ceases to exist in the works of Isabel Allende. Nonetheless, the narrative is not as engaging as that of The House of the Spirits. The basic idea, although skilfully executed, is not something I deem interesting. It might be because I have too high expectation of Eliza and Tao Chi’en’s love relationship, while it looks as if it only decorates the whole story. Fortunately, the storyline is not as disappointing. It’s not linear in progress, with scenes scattered over the narration like seeds of plants on a field, but it is engrossing in some ways, sticking our attention to it and its details. I must say that Daughter of Fortune is an enjoyable read, except that it has some unnecessary similarities with The House of the Spirits in the opening chapters, which I think is irritating and tainting.

Overall, I think Daughter of Fortune is actually a great story, with a great idea and a mysteriously great execution at the end. I might be disappointed by the lack of romance here, but the marvelous, meticulous arrangement of the narrative has made up for it. So, yes, this book is certainly recommended.

Rating: 4/5

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