Book Review: “Portrait in Sepia” by Isabel Allende

 

 

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My Reading Challenge for November, was to read a book by a writer from the southern hemisphere. The reason for this was to try to distract me from any midwinter misery! As I write this, the light dusting of snow which made everything look so pretty these last few days, has given way to a persistent rain and I feel plunged into dark greyness once again. I swear it stayed night until about 11am today! Less than two weeks to the Winter solstice and we can start to look forward to longer days again.

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Stunning front cover

Chilean author Isabel Allende has to be one of the finest writers alive today. As in most of her books, the central characters are strong females. This novel tells the story of Aurora del Valle, who was born in Chinatown, San Francisco in 1880. Her mother was a spectacularly beautiful but fatally naïve young woman, Lynn Sommers, who was duped into sleeping with the wealthy and wayward Matias Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. Lynn is the daughter of Eliza Sommers, and Matias the son of Paulina del Valle. Both these women were central characters in the forerunner to this book, Daughter of Fortune. Severo del Valle, Matias’s cousin, marries Lynn to spare her honour (though the marriage is never consummated) and becomes Aurora’s legal guardian. Lynn dies from a haemorrhage just after her daughter is born so when Severo returns to Chile to fight in the war he leaves the child in the care of her maternal grandparents, Eliza and her husband Tao Chi’en. Aurora spends her first five years with them, happy and much-loved. When Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza fulfils a promise to return her husband’s body to his native China and leaves the child with her paternal grandmother, the indomitable Paulina del Valle. Paulina agrees to this on the basis that Eliza sever all ties with the child.

Thus, Aurora grows up with Paulina and the rest of the story follows her life, from her early years growing up amidst the pomp and wealth of her voracious grandmother’s vast household, such a contrast from the modest life she led in Chinatown, through to her early adulthood as the family moves to Chile. Allende gives a stunning account of the Chilean civil war, and the effect this had on the family, particularly Severo del Valle, who has now married his cousin Nivea, and with whom he goes on to have fifteen children. Nivea is another strong woman in the book, an idealist with fierce views on women’s rights, who does not let childbirth get in the way of her campaigning. She is devoted to Severo and their marriage provides a powerful model of spousal partnership for Aurora. Her grandmother Paulina is also a strong role model, teaching her about business and about feminine power.

In the latter part of the book, the adult Aurora becomes a photographer and enters into a disastrous marriage with Diego Dominguez. Lacking the wilfulness of Paulina and the inner confidence of Eliza, Aurora’s life is miserable, stuck on a farm in a rural part of Chile with a husband who does not love her. She feels as if her fate is not in her own hands.

The novel is classic Allende, an epic saga, covering the period 1862 (before Aurora’s birth) to 1910 with a beautifully drawn cast of characters. Yet despite its scale, the novel digs deep into the human condition – what it is to love and be loved, romantic love, marriage, the love between child, parent and grandparent, blood ties, and the pain and the pleasure that family can bring. The meaning of the title is cryptic, but it is revealed beautifully by the author at the end, in such a way that made me want to go straight back and read it all again! It’s a novel to get lost in, and Allende has this immense talent for drawing the reader in to the extraordinary world she creates.

A flawless book, highly recommended.

Have you read this book? How does it compare with Allende’s other works?

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