Daughter of Fortune by Isabel AllendeIsabel Allende
HarperCollins ($26)

by Jay Miskowiec

Before a recent reading from her novel Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende remarked that the act of writing had helped her on a "journey through the shadows" after the death of her daughter from a rare illness several years ago. While one can appreciate the depth of such an event and its impact on the artist, this latest work by the Chilean author seems more simulacrum than substance.

Daughter of Fortune traces the life of Eliza Sommers, a foundling left on the doorstep of a British brother and sister in Valparaíso, Chile, toward the beginning of the 19th century. Raised within a strict social and moral code, the girl runs off alone to northern California during the 1849 Gold Rush in search of her beloved. Around her swirls an array of characters, from a rugged ship captain to a Chinese herbalist, inhabiting settings from stuffy drawing rooms to wharves and whorehouses.

The picaresque novel presents a protagonist of humble or low origins (often of loose morals but good intentions), who survives by wit and independent perseverance. The genre's irony and constant juxtaposition of ideas and styles, the positing of the body as a political, discursive site—in general the creation of a heterotopic text—make it possible to call works hundreds of years old, such as Cervantes's Don Quixote and Sterne's Tristram Shandy, postmodern. Such stories, utilizing one of the oldest universal forms, that of the journey, have not so much plot development as a rapidly changing, loosely connected series of episodes, some described in elaborate detail, others summed up in a brief passage or even phrase.

At a reading, Allende called Daughter of Fortune "a mythic voyage of the soul." But events supposedly momentous and defining for the characters reveal little about their makeup or thinking. Rose Sommers, who takes in Eliza as an abandoned baby, has her own sordid past, a torrid love affair in her youth with a foreign opera tenor twice her age. On the evening she loses her virginity to him backstage, the sweaty, portly singer carries her to a golden-framed mirror where, "Disarmed, drunk with emotion, Rose looked at herself . . . and did not recognize that woman in her undergarments, her hair wild and cheeks aflame, whom some man, also unrecognizable, was kissing on the neck as he greedily fondled her breasts." While Allende mined Latin American radio soap operas for her best novel by far, Eva Luna, one might surmise she drew upon the bodice-rippers at the supermarket checkout line in much the same way here.

The couple will carry on until her brother Jeremy finally catches them at a seaside hotel. He bursts in, she leaves with him, and we're off to the next setting, some dingy port on the other side of the ocean. But what does it all mean in retrospect, how does it impact Rose's understanding of her ward's own first love? The author can offer nothing more profound than "in her experience, time and obstacles extinguish even the most stubborn fires of love . . . No one better than Miss Rose could know what was happening in Eliza's lovesick soul." That's it. Literally. Consider Henry Fielding's classic work about another foundling, Tom Jones, and one of its scenes of seduction: "Not to tire the reader, by leading him thro' every Scene of this Courtship, (which, tho', in the Opinion of a certain great Author, it is the pleasantest Scene of Life to the Actor, is, perhaps, as dull and tiresome as any whatever to the Audience) the Captain made his Advances in Form, the Citadel was defended in Form, and at length, in proper Form, surrendered at Discretion."

All the champagne showers and operatic arias, créme pastries and scented candles, the smarmy man in a silk robe and the virgin dressed like a Victoria's Secret model don't convey the same depth of meaning. We know the ways and charisma of Tom Jones, even as the narrative voice begs off telling us all the details (at least at that moment). There is more complexity of character in that one sentence of Fielding than in the dozen pages it took Allende to tell us about her character's sole experience with passion.

In an interview a number of years ago, Allende described North American literature as a "world devoid of illusion" that "denies aspects of the world we can't control." Certainly part of the storyteller's art is to demonstrate the power of language, and thus at times exorcise the demons of the past, of memory. But in this latest novel, Allende the author seems like the clumsy, boring architect Leonardo in her short story "Tosca," someone who "lacked the spirit to make a new beginning." It's a risky proposition to put value judgments on art--one person's masterpiece is someone else's object of scorn. But a work can be bad in a good way; that is, when its failure stems from the risk of innovation or experimentation or idea. Allende supposedly sets her characters off on journeys of discovery and change, but as an author, she settles on clichés and stale style. There's nothing wrong, though, with mediocre writing: at times it gives us pause to re-examine what is literature.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999