Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquín Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of northern California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealth. Joaquín takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.
As we follow her spirited heroine on a perilous journey north in the hold of a ship to the rough-and-tumble world of San Francisco and northern California, we enter a world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. A society of single men and prostitutes among whom Eliza moves–with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chien–California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence for the young Chilean. Her search for the elusive Joaquín gradually turns into another kind of journey that transforms her over time, and what began as a search for love ends up as the conquest of personal freedom.
At first I was a little unsure whether I would enjoy this book as it is not the usual genre that I read, but all my doubts were quickly swept away by Isabel Allende’s wonderful storytelling.
It is set in the British colony of Valpraiso, in 1840’s Chile and begins in a humorous way by telling us Eliza Sommers two talents: a sense of smell and a good memory. By the end of the book I discovered that Eliza’s character had grown so much that these two meager talents have increased tenfold.
If I have any criticisms of the novel they are few and far between. There were possibly times when I thought that some of the descriptions were slightly long but overall I didn’t find that this bothered me.
Overall I really enjoyed the book, I think in part due to the diverse characters, the cultural references and the skill of Allende’s writing.
*****BEWARE SOME SPOILERS BELOW*****
Eliza is an orphan who was found on the doorstep, raised by Miss Rose, a Victorian spinster with a hidden past, her starchy brother Jeremy, and an Indian servant, Mama Fresia. Much to the family’s dismay she falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, an unsuitable young man from a poor family, with political ideals that are at odds with the state. Eliza without a thought to consequence, gives herself to this young man, drugging the household, so they will not hear their passionate lovemaking. She is disconsolate when she finds that he intends to go to California to make his fortune in gold. She can do nothing to stop him. He, like so many others is obsessed by the vision of gold, and wealth. Her lover takes off for San Francisco leaving her behind broken hearted. Eliza discovers that she is pregnant with his child, and decides that she has no other alternative left but to follow him.
Eliza hides in the hold of a ship bound for California. She becomes ill and is attended to by Tao, a Chinese doctor. Tao began his sailor’s life after being shanghaied. He had been drinking to forget his sorrow at the sad death of his young, beautiful wife Lin. On board ship his wife’s delicate ghost comes to him when he is administering to Eliza and berates him for not doing his utmost to save her. He is so distressed by this ghostly vision of his wife that he does everything in his power to help Eliza. Eliza has a miscarriage but survives and escapes from the ship dressed in male clothing. She continues to pretend that she is male to blend in and safeguard her safety. In this land driven crazy by gold fever, single men and prostitutes make up the population. She has no wish to become a prostitute so she chooses to adopt a masculine persona. In this new world she finds freedom from the restraints of her life as a woman living in a British household in Chile.
Daughter of Fortune has several strengths, Isabel Alllende’s characterisation is excellent, I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of several female characters: Miss Rose, even though she is constrained by female niceties knows how to get what she wants. Paulina manipulates her husband to get her own bank account and eventually buys a steam ship and becomes a wealthy business woman. Though Tao’s wife Lin is described as being weak her ghost manages to find him across the vast expanse of ocean and convinces him to help Eliza.
I also really enjoyed how Allende played with her characters: the intimidating giant Babula the Bad is really a good guy, with a soft side. In Eliza’s case this transformation is even more marked, as if she is rediscovering herself in stages as the adventure unfolds. She pretends to be a deaf-mute Chinese boy and then the brother of her Chilean lover, and finally she rediscovers her female identity, but this female is no longer chained by layers of corsetry but free to be herself.
Also Tao’s character transforms from his humble start as fourth son to respected Chinese doctor. He learns that his delicate young wife with golden lilies for feet only brings him a fleeting happiness, cut short by her early death, whereas Eliza with her big feet and sturdy body will give him many years of companionship and love.
Bye for now.
Marje @ Kyrosmagica xx
There are passages in the novel that are gut wrenchingly sad, but there is also a sense that life is a journey of discovery, with many possibilities open to us.
Find out more about the author at http://isabelallende.com