fiction, review

Portrait in Sepia

Indonesian edition’s cover

There seems to be no end to talking about women, for the fluidity of our social cultures and systems and the diversity of our viewpoints on womanhood will remain existing and always bring about endless, sometimes useless, discussion. Some female authors can actually point out women’s issues that are worth discussing, and even though they don’t really offer any solutions, what they have to present to the reader is not some nonsense we don’t feel related to at all. Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia doesn’t need any claims of being a feminist novel, yet it’s somehow capable of telling, and elaborating in the process, a story of unfortunate women and the suffering they have to endure in their time and age. Every woman who appears in this book is doomed from the start, to heartache, social restrictions, physical embarrassment, disgracefully gray status. Living in the 19th century, all they can do is stay quiet and resigned. But at some point, they show the reader that they can still stand up and hold their heads high.

The story gets us focused mainly on Aurora del Valle, the granddaughter of Tao Chi’en and Eliza Sommers of Daughter of Fortune, who lives a traumatic life and suffers horrible nightmares. Those upsetting dreams are deeply rooted in the death of her beloved grandfather, a haunting childhood experience that later defines the course of her troubled life. Paulina del Valle, her rich, demanding paternal grandmother, takes care of her and tries her best to erase Aurora’s memories and redefine her self and being by giving her luxury, education, even unlimited love and protection. But none of those can ease her pain nor dim her sufferings, for there will be always a huge hole in her heart and memory. Then, when she thinks she’ll never be happy, Aurora meets Diego Dominguéz, a country man she thinks of as her first and forever love. He gently courts her, and asks her to marry him. But what’s supposed to be a dream marriage turns out to be another nightmare for her. His betrayal leaves her torn, embarrassed, lost, but she sees no way out because tradition and the religious belief of their society bind her to an anti-divorce law in which a married couple cannot be separated by anything for they are united by God. Unable to do anything, she’s resigned to live that painful life until one day, she finds her true sanctuary in the arms of a man who can truly appreciate her and love her as she wants to be loved and fights back against the unfairness of the fate.

Allende describes female characters who are trapped in an old patriarchal society which robs them of the right to make their own choices. Once they plunge into an unpleasant situation, here disastrous marriages, they cannot get out of it. Aurora, Paulina, and even Susana have no choice but to stay where they are and bear all the unhappiness clouding their married lives. All three of them are stuck, the epitome of patriarchal dolls moving with strings attached. However, while Aurora seems too weak and innocent at the beginning, Paulina always knows what she wants to do and to have and makes something of herself. Aurora is a bit late in finding what she truly needs in life, but she soon comes to realization and does not let her fate, and the unfair society system, dictate her choices anymore. Interestingly, on the other hand, Susana seems so content with having an affair with her brother-in-law, while ruining another woman’s life and dreams in the process, to compensate for her inability to dissolve the marriage she never wants. Any way you slice it, we can’t deny the fact that those characters are women in trouble, who become the base of the whole story.

Portrait in Sepia is, obviously, a dramatic tale of womanhood of a constricted and constricting society. It’s revealing how a marriage can be both bliss and an unavoidable disaster, how a man can do whatever they please when a woman is bound to law and tradition they cannot untangle themselves from, how a secret love affair is the only way to solve a problematic marriage that is so unfair. Allende also talks about women’s sexuality here, which I personally deem important in the realm of feminism. The way she narrates every sex scene and the talks on sexual relationship emanate the unrecognized inner power of women. It is wrong, I have to say, to liken sexuality and femininity, but it is also undeniable that sex has been part of the physical politics of women’s bodies. This idea is very clear in the description of the character of Nívea, who refuses to be dictated by motherhood and enjoys sex as it is, using it as a weapon to get her husband always on fire.

The narrative is as randomly arranged as that of The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, which I now think is Isabel Allende’s typical style of writing, at least so far. However, while this kind of narrative works so well in her other works above, this time it’s quite disturbing. The hasty flow makes it dizzying to my eye and, worst, doesn’t help some characters develop well. The character of Feliciano de Santa Cruz seems to change in a second, drastically from a loving, passionate lover into a deceitful, playboy husband. Aurora’s and Iván Radovic’s mild friendship also turns to be a lustful relationship in a snap without detailed elaboration. It gives the impression of not being carefully handled, or rather, written. Nevertheless, awkwardly, it is still engaging and beautiful in a dramatic way. I liked the story, and especially the basic idea. The conflict Allende presents to the reader is very much heart-wrenching and connected to women in general, despite its historical specificity. What so unfortunate about this book is that Allende apparently decides not to use her “magical realism” prowess here, and let it be a simple historical/general fiction instead.

On the whole, Portrait in Sepia is a great read, pretty absorbing and interesting, in spite of the weaknesses in its plot and character development. Without looking at those failed aspects, this book is actually a wonderful work of feminist fiction.

Rating: 4/5

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