Author: Isabel Allende
Release Date: October 2002
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: Internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende follows up her best selling novel Daughter of Fortune with a story epic in scope: a portrayal of a woman determined to solve the mystery of a past she cannot remember and a dream she cannot forget. . . .
With her earliest memories erased by a brutal trauma. Aurora del Valle is raised amid great wealth in Chile by her shrewd, commanding grandmother. But her nights are tormented by a nightmare set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Now, reaching womanhood and thrust into a marriage that quickly leaves her disillusioned, she begins a search for her missing years and unwinds a twisted saga linking three generations of a powerful family to a courageous Chinese physician and Eliza Sommers, protagonist of Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, in a tale that explores the complexity of passion, the power of memory, and a woman’s emerging self.
My Thoughts: I read and reviewed Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende recently as part of TLC Books Tours. (my review). Portrait of Sepia by Isabel Allende is also on tour with TLC Books. I knew if I read Daughter of Fortune I had to read Portrait in Sepia. Portrait advances the story of Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en, the main characters in Daughter and amplifies the story of Paulina del Valle, a secondary character in the first book, introducing several enthralling new characters whose lives are inextricably tied to those who intrigued and fascinated me in the first book.
Portrait in Sepia is narrated in the first-person style by the character Aurora del Valle. This is quite different from Daughter of Fortune which is told in the third-person, focusing on several different characters. In Daughter the history and personality of the main characters are revealed in great detail but because of the narrative style I always felt somewhat removed from the story. I prefer Allende's approach in Portrait because it provides a more personal experience. Aurora feels like an old friend who has resurfaced after many years away. I often felt like I was visiting with her and, over the course of the visit, Aurora shared with me the story of her life in great detail.
This book is divided into three sections, each covering a span of years. Aurora tells us a little bit about herself in the opening pages of the first section. She then makes it understood, after many years she has finally learned the truth about her parents and the part of her family she knew nothing about for a long time. Thus begins a tale spanning nearly half a century.
Through Aurora we experience love, death, betrayal, the end of one family, the expansion of another, secrets, lies, loyalty, the trials and tribulations of growing up, stress, joys, celebration, fear of the unknown and the relief that comes from discovering the truth. As her story progresses we ascertain that Aurora is a woman who has known terrible loss, love and loyalty of family and the sting of betrayal. It's easy to identify with this young, intelligent, thoughtful and caring woman. We can understand her desire to know the history of her family and feel her frustration when nobody will answer her questions about her parents and maternal grandparents. We sympathisize when nightmares and fear plague Aurora, hoping she’ll find answers to soothe her. She's close to her grandmother, Paulina, who has given Aurora a wonderful life but also hides the truth from Aurora. She discovers, with the help of her Uncle Severo, a remarkable talent for photography which provides an absorbing distraction from her troubles.
Isabel Allende's writing brings to life the places visited in Portrait in Sepia. It's as if a time machine has transported us back to San Francisco in the late 1800's. The city comes to life through her vivid descriptions and imagery and we practically smell the vanilla and sugar that wafts out of Eliza Sommer's tea & pastry shop. Then there's the overpowering aroma in the opium den as we share Severo del Valle's shock at what he sees while rescuing his cousin. Allende's beautiful writing similarly brings Santiago, Chile to life when Paulina del Valle moves her family to her childhood home.
Nothing jumps off the page, though, like Paulina del Valle, a woman who is larger than life in more ways than one! Allende's talent in attention to detail, from hair to clothing to jewelry is like a photograph in words, not unlike the many that Aurora actually takes of Paulina with her camera. Paulina is such a fascinating character that if there's a shortcoming to this book, it's that we never hear directly from Paulina, only about her, and then only from Aurora's point of view. This is a woman who grows in stature and size, literally and figuratively, due to her mind for business, fearlessness and love of pastry!. She, in fact, scares the bejeezus out of most men, so she's worth more attention than she's given in these pages, which can't really contain her.
Aurora is an engaging and interesting character in a book with many well developed characters. As the granddaughter of Paulina del Valle and Eliza and Tao Chi‘en, Aurora’s story provides us with the continuation of a saga of two intriguing families that began in Daughter of Fortune. This compelling and complex story with it's ability to transport us to different places through time, told by an engaging narrator and fascinating protaganist is one that can't be summarized in just a few paragraphs. This book is so much more than any publisher's "blurb" or book jacket information. Isabel Allende's book deserves a careful and appreciative reading that merits an investment of time that's well worth the effort and the rewards of which are numerous. Portrait in Sepia is a book you don't want to miss. If you loved Daughter of Fortune, Portrait in Sepia will thrill you. I highly recommend both books, although Aurora and Paulina del Valle give Portrait an edge in my book!
Isabel Allende's website provides information on the extensive list of books she's written.
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity and a copy of Portrait in Sepia to review.