Isabel Allende belongs to a special corner in my imagination where I put all the writers I would like to read one day: Joseph Bolano, Don DeLillo, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Checkov, Alice Walker, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, just to mention a few. It’s a long list, and every once in a while a name pops up, a lottery type of moment if you will, and one of the books written by someone from that long list comes up front and I pick it up and start reading and in a moment I forget where I am and minutes later I come back to the real world and say, yes, I’ve been looking for this book.
The main character is introduced right away. There is no overly florid description but a true, powerful first sentence that piqued my curiosity and managed to keep me guessing until the very last page. There’s adventure, danger, brutality, tragedy and loss, and for each of them there’s also love, courage, determination and a powerful desire to follow one’s dreams. Eliza gets to know all of them, first as the adopted daughter of a well to do family living in Chile. Little is known about her origins. Certainly nobody seems to know who her parents are or where she is from, but she is received with great joy by Miss Rose Sommers, who later convinces her brother, Jeremy Sommers, to accept the girl into the family. The other member of the Sommers clan, John, is a sea captain whose voyages into distant lands keep him away from home for the greatest part of the year. His visits are short and joyful, and his absences long.
Eliza grows up in a somewhat chaotic atmosphere, between Miss Rose’s strict rules concerning what a lady should do – play the piano, sit ramrod straight for hours or walking with a book on her head to cultivate a good posture, and being neglected for days, time she uses to sit with the cook, Mama Fresia, and learn all she can about the culinary arts. And then she falls in love. For the sixteen year-old who’s led such a sheltered life, the moment turns everything upside down. Passion, love letters, and a desire to belong to Joaquin Andieta, her first love, will have her run away from her family, hide her identity, endure a devastating experience aboard a ship and make a lifelong friend who saves her life.
Obsessed with finding her runaway lover who left her behind to pursue his dream of getting rich, Eliza goes to the city that was later to become San Francisco. Determined to find Joaquin, she risks her life in a land filled with people crazed by the gold rush, where death and hardship go together, and there, hiding under the disguise of a boy, she continues her search. We get to see how California came to be, the gold rush, the greed and drama, even Levi’s famous jeans get a brief nod, along with a more ample description of the origins of the peep show. Lust, in the form of traveling brothels and erotic books, is described in such a manner as to give the reader a good picture of what America was like in the mid 1800s and how gold changed everything. Scores of immigrants in search of fortune mingle and live together in the same city yet apart in well defined neighborhoods. Chinese customs and way of life are mentioned, mostly through the eyes of Tao Chi’en, the young zhong yi, trained in the ancient art of traditional Chinese medicine. His story is also a brutal one and after meeting Eliza, their paths never truly separate.
Eliza and Tao Chi’en are the most developed characters in the book, but the writer gives enough details about the Sommers so that the reader gets a good enough idea about them, Miss Rose in particular, whose scandalous past is described in a more lengthy story. There is a secret the Sommers are hiding and it comes out unexpectedly but a little too late.
I liked Eliza for her determination and courage. She is a true heroine, not necessarily beautiful (thank God for that or it would have been too cliché) but with enough willpower to feel like a girl ready to go to the ends of the world to find some answers, no matter what they might be.
I enjoyed this book for the sense of adventure and the historical references. The story keeps up an engaging pace and the reader is kept guessing until the very last sentence in the book. Although one might get a feel for where the story is going, the question remains: will Eliza find her first love, and if she does what will she do? Only that last line will provide the answer, and it’s not a straightforward one but perhaps more satisfying because of that. In the meantime, it was a really good adventure. And there’s also a sequel, Portrait in Sepia, published one year after the first book, in 2000. I would like to read that one, too.
My rating: 5/5 stars
*Read in February 2014