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

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

fiction, review

The House of the Spirits

Indonesian edition’s cover (source:

Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits was my very first introduction to Latin American literature. I was quite in awe when I first went into it, and by the middle of the book, I felt sure that I had fallen for it. First published in 1982, The House of the Spirits is, hands down, one of the most notable works not only in the realm of Latin American literature, but also modern literary world in general. It has everything it takes to become a splendid, unforgettable work, namely uniqueness and profundity.

The House of the Spirits opens with a peculiar narration introducing Clara, a ten-year-old girl of some large, prominent family. However, it’s not particularly her the whole first chapter is talking about, but her elder sister, the mermaid-like, gloriously beautiful Rosa. Through a whimsical description of the little Clara, Allende weaves her magic and slowly brings out Rosa into view. Later, as the narrative picturing Rosa and the entire del Valle family develops, we come to meet the main male character who will be the machine of the story throughout the book, Esteban Trueba, Rosa’s loving fiancé. The tragic end of his painfully brief engagement to Rosa brings Trueba to mourning, being unable, as he claims, to feel love anymore. Desperate and broken-hearted, Trueba distracts himself by trying to focus on making money, especially after leaving his mining job earlier. So he comes back to his ancestor’s abandoned land, Tres Marías, examining it with a critical eye and deciding that it has the potential to become a prosperous field. To that end, he rolls his sleeves and gets back to work, setting himself up as the landlord and doing everything in his power to achieve his deep-rooted ambition. But the success of a son is never enough for a mother, for it is a sure thing that a mother would like to see her son get married right and proper. So at his mother’s request, Trueba starts to seek a proper wife, and the twist of fate brings him to Clara, Rosa’s little sister. Clara, the clairvoyant, has already known for quite some time that she will one day marry her sister’s former fiancé, and that her marriage to Esteban Trueba will lead to an unavoidable disaster. From then on, the story of the Trueba family involves so many horrible events that bear evidence of what Clara has predicted all along.

The character of Esteban Trueba sort of draws the reader’s sympathy and hatred at the same time. While his loving nature and hard-working persistence are unmistakable, his evil deeds and his endless arrogance and desire for power seem to me too much to bear. He is such a fantastic creation of a character, mean yet tender, strong yet vulnerable, tyrannical yet pitiful. What he does and how he behaves as a landlord and a politician show flagrantly the one side of him, while his forever love for Clara and his limitless affection for his granddaughter Alba vividly prove the other. He is, in my opinion, the perfect other half for Clara, who is so quiet and indifferent, yet so determined and having so much care for others. I cannot say that they are a romantic couple, but the unique bond between them is so touching and so natural. Their daughter Blanca seems to be the blend of both of their characters, quiet and shy but so rebellious in her own way. Her love for Pedro Tercero García drives her to fearlessly fight her father in any possible way. And this very trait is then inherited to Alba, her and García’s illegitimate child. However, in light of a different era, Alba is more forthright and more stubborn than her mother. These three women, these three representations of the fair sex across times and eras, have important roles of their own which help shaping the entire narrative alongside the character of Trueba, keeping the balance of both genders in a marvelous tale of historical events, wave of ideology, and endless love.

The story is intricately written from two different points of view, Esteban Trueba’s and his granddaughter Alba’s, making it rich and luxurious, instilling in the reader multifaceted understanding of the events that take place. This way of storytelling is one of the many unique things found in the book. It doesn’t necessitate the reader judging any character or assessing any happenings, or even conceding any ideology. It flows as it is, as a story of a family and a society that are never perfect in their natures. The plot is unusual as well. It doesn’t really run in a straightforward line, nor is it molded into a flashback pattern. Allende seems to make it like a recollection of the past events bouncing off every which way without certainty. But, thankfully, it’s not distracting, but demanding our full attention instead. The description of every character is also very much clear, developing through the course of the said events so that the reader can have a clear picture in their mind. What so incredible about this book is that Allende concocts every ingredient cleverly and serves it as one unity, marking each era she recounts with the presence of a character and all of their personalities and thoughts and choices of life, and then infusing them with her ideas so that every aspect is inseparable and solid.

The House of the Spirits is a stunning, breathtaking work of fiction, and so far I have found no match for it. Its beauty and excellence are all indescribable. In short, it is definitely very much recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5