Daughter of Fortune
Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune — her first work of fiction in six years — is a rich and spirited historical novel. Set at the exciting midpoint of the Nineteenth Century, and spanning four continents, this eagerly awaited novel, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, brims with Allende's characteristic magic and once again proves that this beloved novelist can "hold the world spellbound with her tales" (Miami Herald).
The Daughter of Fortune is Eliza Sommers, a young Chilean girl of mysterious origins. Left as a baby on the doorstep of the Sommers, an English family living in Valparaiso, she is adopted by the spinster Rose Sommers and raised to be a proper English lady. But an equally strong childhood influence is Mama Fresia, the Sommers' Indian servant, at whose apron strings Eliza learns the culinary and medicinal secrets of an ancient culture–secrets that will serve her well as the adventure of her life unfolds.
When she is not yet sixteen, Eliza falls in love with Joaquin Andieta, a poor yet terribly proud underling at her uncle Jeremy's British Import and Export Company. Knowing that Rose has set her sights on a more socially exalted marriage of Eliza, the girl conducts her love affair on the sly. When Joaquin announces he must journey to California to make his fortune in the gold rush, Eliza agrees to wait for this return. But, two months after his departure, she discovers she is pregnant with his child.
Eliza knows that the only solution to her predicament is to follow Joaquin to California–hardly an easy feat for a respectable girl with no money. With the help of a Chinese cook, Eliza stows away on a northbound ship. The sea voyage alone nearly kills her, and only through the ministrations of Tao Chi'en, the Chinese cook who is really an accomplished physician, does she survive both a miscarriage and the passage. Somewhat unwillingly Tao Chi'en becomes her protector when they reach San Francisco, and the friendship they forge will prove the only sure footing in each of their shifting destinies.
Once in California, Eliza, disguised as a boy, sets off the find Joaquin. Her search leads her into the dangerous and daring world along the mother lode, and introduces her to a life unimaginable during her sheltered Chilean girlhood. Tao Chi'en, too, witnesses the brutality and promise of the Golden Mountain, his future irrevocably altered by the coarse reality of this imperfect new world.
Characters surface and resurface, reinventing themselves to accommodate the exigencies of life. Crossed paths and missed opportunities abound, as the inextricable fortunes of Allende's vividly portrayed cast play out history. Indeed, in Daughter of Fortune Allende brings a stirring immediacy to history, and once again validates the appraisal that she is "one of the most important novelists to emerge from Latin American in the past decade" (Boston Globe).
It was fifteen years ago that, Isabel Allende took the literary world by storm with the publication of The House of the Spirits, a novel which chronicled four generations of a Chilean family against the backdrop of Chile's brutal history. The Times of London heralded Allende as having "the rare ability to blend fantasy and legend with political fact and a well-plotted narrative to produce an enchanted world unlike anything else in contemporary fiction." The New York Times called the book "a unique achievement, both personal witness and possible allegory of the past, present and future of Latin America."
Allende followed her impressive debut with Of Love and Shadows, Eva Luna, The Stories of Eva Luna, and The Infinite Plan, all bestsellers around the world. Critical accolades have greeted the publication of each of Allende's books, which have commonly been cited for their compassion, imagination, humor and originality. The House of the Spirits was made into a feature film with an all-star cast headed by Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep, and Glenn Close. Of Love and Shadows, starring Antonio Banderas, was released a year later.
Isabel Allende was born in Lima, Peru, in 1942 and raised in Chile, Bolivia, Europe, and the Middle East, as her peripatetic family followed her stepfather's diplomatic career. She worked as a journalist in Chile until the 1973 military coup. Allende fled her homeland, settling in Venezuela with her husband, son and daughter. "I felt, as many Chileans did, that my life had been cut into pieces, and that I had to start over again," she recalls.
Isolated from her family, and in particular from her beloved grandfather who was close to death, Allende began to write a long letter in which she reassured him that the would always be kept alive in her memories. That letter grew into The House of the Spirits.
PAULA, Allende's first non-fiction book is a deeply moving memoir inspired by the tragic fatal illness of her 28 year-old daughter. It, too, began as a letter from mother to daughter that becomes a meditation on a mother's life and a daughter's death. It became an international bestseller when it was published three years ago.
Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses which celebrates the pleasures of the sensual life through food, stories, and personal anecdotes, was published in April 1998. Daughter of Fortune was published October 10, 1999.
Isabel Allende now lives in the San Francisco area with her American husband and their respective extended families.
The most important literary influences for me have been the young adult books, the Russian novelists and the works of Shakespeare, which I read in my adolescence. They gave me the love of storytelling, strong characters, drama, tragedy, great plots. Later I read a lot of science fiction, which initiated me into the multiple possibilities of reality, imagination, mystery. European and North American feminists were essential to my development, they gave me an articulate language to express the feelings that had been tormenting me since childhood, they guided me into action, they changed my life. Thanks to them I became a feminist journalist. Women's issues are always present in my writing, it is one of the themes of my life, like politics, love, family, etc. The love of words comes probably from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Nobel Prize) whose work still inspires me. The desire to write started when I began reading the famous writers of the Latin American Boom of Literature in the seventies (all males!). I belong to the first generation of Latin American authors to be brought up reading other Latin American writers. Before, the distribution of those books was lousy, readers simply could not get them in their countries.
My life is about ups and downs, great joys and great losses. My writing comes not from the happy moments, but from struggle and grief. The first loss was my father, who left when I was so young that I have no memories of him. Then my grandmother, who died too soon...I still miss her! In 1973 there was a military coup in Chile and I fled the country. Exile made me a writer. I wrote my first novel The House of the Spirits as an attempt to recover the world that I had lost. And the greatest of all my pains was in 1992, when my daughter Paula fell in a coma and a year later died in my arms.
I write to understand my circumstances, to sort out the confusion of reality, to exorcise my demons. But most of all, I write because I love it! If I didn't write my soul would dry up and die...
© Isabel Allende 2000
Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory. She used the first to earn a living and the second to recall her life-it not in precise detail, at least with an astrologer's poetic vagueness. The things we forget may as well never have happened, but she had many memories, both real and illusory, and that was like living twice. She use to tell her faithful friend, the sage Tao Chi'en, that her memory was like the hold of the ship where they had come to know one another: vast and comber, bursting with boxes, barrels, and sacks in which all the events of her life were jammed. Awake it was difficult to find anything in that chaotic clutter, but asleep she could, just as Mama Fresia had taught her in the gentle nights of the childhood, when the contours of reality were as faint as a tracery of pale ink. She entered the place of her dreams along a much traveled path and returned treading very carefully in order not to shatter the tenuous visions against the harsh light on consciousness. She put as much store in that process as others put in numbers, and she so refined the art of remembering that she could see Miss Rose bent over the crate of Marseilles soap that was her first cradle.
"You cannot possibly remember that, Eliza. Newborns are like cats, they have no emotions and no memory," Miss Rose insisted the few times the subject arose.
Possible or not, that woman peering down at her, her topaz-colored dress, the loose strands from her bun stirring in the breeze were engraved in Eliza's mind, and she could never accept the other explanation of her origins.
"You have English blood, like us," Miss Rose assured Eliza when she was old enough to understand. "Only someone from the British colony would have thought to leave you in a basket on the doorstep of the British Import and Export Company, Limited. I am sure they knew how goodhearted my brother Jeremy is, and felt sure he would take you in. I those days I was longing to have a child, and you fell into my arms, sent by God to be brought up in the solid principles of the Protestant faith and the English language."
"You, English? Don't get any ideas, child. You have Indian hair, like mine," Mama Fresia rebutted behind her patrona's back.
But Eliza's birth was a forbidden subject in that house, and the child grew accustomed to the mystery. It, along with other delicate matters, was never mentioned between Rose and Jeremy Sommers, but it was aired in whispers in the kitchen with Mama Fresia, who never wavered in the description of the soap crate, while Miss Rose's version was, with the years, embroidered into a fairy tale. According to her, the basket they had found at the office door was woven of the finest wicker and lined in batiste; Eliza's nightgown was worked with French knots and the sheets edged with Brussels lace, and topping everything was a mink coverlet, an extravagance never seen in Chile. Over time, other details were added: six gold coins tied up in a silk handkerchief and a note in English explaining that the baby, though illegitimate, was of good stock-although Eliza never set eyes on any of that. The mink, the coins, and the note conveniently disappeared, erasing any trace of her birth. Closer to Eliza's memories was Mama Fresia's explanation: when she opened the door one morning at the end of summer, she had found a naked baby girl in a crate.
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- Love motivates Eliza to leave Chile for California, beginning her daring journey. In what other ways does love, in its various forms, propel the story?
- How does Allende's imagining of the California Gold Rush differ from what you may have learned in school?
- Eliza is half-English and half-Chilean--a fact she herself never knows. How does her mixed heritage and mysterious parentage unconsciously influence her actions?
- Discuss the various meanings of the word "fortune" in the novel.
- How might Eliza's experience of the Gold Rush been different if she really had been a boy?
- Do you think the fact that Eliza masquerades as a boy alters her relationship with Tao Ch'ien?
- What role do secrets play in the novel?
- Rose Sommers is a study in contrasts: a proper Victorian spinster who secretly writes erotica, the guardian of Eliza's honor who once conducted her own torrid love affair. Is she merely a hypocrite or does she tells us something about the reality of women's lives during the 19th Century?
- In contemporary terms, Eliza reinvents herself more than once. What might her life have been like if she'd stayed in Chile?
- Contrast Eliza's fate with that of the Chinese prostitutes-also immigrant women of her own age. Is Eliza just lucky or is she responsible for her own destiny?
- How does Eliza's journey transform her?
- Isabel Allende, who was raised in Chile, is regarded as on of Latin America's most representative writers. Do the sections of the book set in Chile have a different tone from those set in California, or does the author seem equally comfortable in both worlds?
"Allende has created a masterpiece of historical fiction that is passionate, adventurous and brilliantly insightful. And right up to the end, it's suspenseful and surprising. This one's a gem."
— Denver Post
"Allende expands her geographical boundaries in this sprawling, engrossing historical novel flavored by four cultures..."
— Kirkus Reviews Review
"A passionate storyteller... Her writing is lyrical, mystical, ribald, funny." — Miami Herald
"Like a slow, seductive lover, Allende teases, tempts and titillates with mesmerizing stories."
— Washington Post
— New York Times Book Review
"A Magician with words."
— Publishers Weekly