Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende — book review

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Isabel Allende is one of my all time favourite writers.
When I was in middle-grade I fell in love with her Eagle and Jaguar series and in the years since I’ve enjoyed other novels by her.
Having loved her memoir of Chile, My Invented Country, I was looking forward to A Long Petal of the Sea as it promised to be an evocative account of Spanish refugees in Chile.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, this novel tells the story of a young doctor, Victor Dalmau, who alongside his sister-in-law and many of their compatriots are forced into exile. The narrative opens in Spain, introducing us to Victor, his family, and Roser. Here Allende spends large sections to detailing the causes and consequences of the Spanish Civil War. We read of the bleak reality of soldiers such as Victor’s brother as well as the dangers faced by civilians. Victor, who is fighting against the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, soon realises that the only way he and his loved ones can survive is by leaving their once beloved but now unrecognisable country.
Enter the poet Pablo Neruda. It is thanks to him and the Winnipeg ship that around 2,000 refugees were able to escape a war torn Europe. In Chile Victor and Roser will have to learn to acclimate to a culture that is different from their own one. Their new status as refugees is not an easy one to embrace and both Victor and Roser will find difficulties in adjusting themselves to their new home.
On paper the story sounded like a tragic yet poignant epic. Sadly, within the first pages I soon picked up on the fact that in this novel Allende’s writing is all-telling and no-showing. There are a few brief dialogues here and there, but for the most part it is an act-by-act account of historical events with a few uninspired soap-operish elements thrown into the mix.
This ‘happened’, and then this ‘happened’, and years later this ‘happened’. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if the style hadn’t been so very dry. I never grew connected to the people she was writing of because they didn’t really strike me as real people (which is ironic given that there are a few cameos of real-life people).

I managed to make my way through this narrative but only out of a sense of duty (towards Allende, whom I still consider to be an excellent writer and towards NetGalley). Usually it takes me a few days to finish a book…A Long Petal of the Sea took me over a week.

In the acknowledgments section Allende writes that “This book wrote itself, as if it had been dictated to me”. And in some ways it makes sense. This book feels like a blow by blow recital. The story lacks spontaneity and life, the characters are expandable.

While I recognise the vast amount of research that Allende must have carried out in order to write this book, and that she was inspired by the story of someone she personally knew…the writing is this novel far too passive for my taste.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff — book review

Untitled drawing (1).jpgThe History of Living Forever is an ambitious novel. The narrative includes multiple timelines and often switches between 1st and 3rd perspective, weaving together a compelling yet intricate story. Two of the central figures in these various ‘timelines’ are Conrad Aybinder and Sammy Tampari who in spite of their student-teacher relationship, and of Conrad being underage, become involved romantically. Their “liaison” however is soon cut short by Sammy’s death. A grief-struck Conrad finds himself entangled in what was Sammy’s search for immortality. Through Sammy’s diary entries he discovers that for years Sammy had been using himself as a guinea pig. Had Sammy lost his mind? Or was he really onto something?
With this fascinating premise The History of Living Forever details Sammy and Conrad lives, moving from their childhoods to their adulthoods. They are highly intelligent individuals who are feel somewhat isolated by their intellect (both of them are high-school seniors at the age of 16), I like the fact that the narrative never romanticises their worst actions or behaviours and that other characters call them out on their ‘bad antics’. I also enjoyed the way the characters around them were rendered. Wherever they had an important role or not they were engaging and realistic. I was particularly affected by the parents and relatives in this story. While Conrad’s dad is an alcoholic and could have easily been relegated to the role of ‘bad dad’ the narrative offers a nuanced portrayal of him and his addiction.
The plot was in constant movement, shifting from past to present, jumping from one theory to the other. We learn what drives Sammy’s quest for immortality and see that at the age of 40 Conrad still thinks of him.
At times I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information we were given. Don’t get me wrong, it was all fascinating, but science and maths are not my fortes so I think (okay, I know) that many things that went over my head. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this story which is a story about science, love, obsession, and immortality. Immortality makes for an intriguing topic, one that Wolff skilfully explores. Part of me wishes that we could have had more of Conrad and less of Sammy, or that at least we could have known what Sammy felt for Conrad.
Overall, I think this is an incredibly creative novel, one that bridges genre (coming of age, mystery, adventure, speculative fiction). While I wish that some of the characters’ arcs had been handled differently, I am looking forward to reading this again (and perhaps I will have a better grasp of the theories discussed).

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My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.75 stars

 

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

A novel that is both challenging and hear-rendering, and Allende showcases her skills for creating vivid characters and riveting storylines. This translation carries through a rhythm that is resonant with the one of writers such as Alice Hoffman.
But before I delve into a review…who thought that cover was a good idea?
I can’t believe that someone who had actually read this novel would decide to put this corny cover and add that cheesy inscription (‘every friendship leaves a trace’). No. Just no. This is badly marketed. You miss out on a readership that would actually enjoy and appreciate this novel while making readers who will end up giving it poor reviews because it isn’t what it advertises. This isn’t a light, fluffy, romcom. Allende talks about rape, torture, violent deaths, drugs, and many more topics that do not fall under the type of genre which that cover suggests.
Couldn’t you have used an image that at least evoked the ‘winter’ ?
No?Alright…you have the power Scribner. Rant over.

Allende handles challenging topics in a way that renders the reading process far from painful: balancing small everyday trifles with the most toxic aspects of our society. And she does it so well. She is a swift storyteller: the language and phrasing make each page incredibly compelling (kudos to the translator). The atmosphere created by Allende is enriched by graceful descriptions and wistful observations. She handles horrific situations in a upfront and honest way, she does not shy from portraying the ugliness of the world, and yet, the story doesn’t suffer from it. Far from it. The seriousness is contrasted by the incredibly sympathetic and ‘real’ main characters. I was engrossed by their pasts and by their present. The nostalgic tone of the novel is heightened by the characters contemplations. Allende’s expressive prose make this novel a true pleasure to read, despite that it explicitly depicts difficult – if not downright horrible – scenes. There is an element of humor that contrasts the character’s painful experiences. I recommend this to fans of Ann Patchett and or Anne Tyler.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars