"Daughter of Fortune" by Isabel Allende

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Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

In Daughter of Fortune Isabel Allende has crafted an epic novel of change. Many, if not most, novels feature change in their characters, but in Daughter everything changes: the main characters, the principal mode of oceangoing transportation, the United States, San Francisco, science, the press - you name it. This full, diverting novel is a paroxysm of change.

And where better to set such fiction than in Gold Rush California, a setting and metaphor for wrenching alteration if there ever was one? The prime and preeminent change occurs in fifteen year-old Eliza Summers in Valparaiso, a small, stultifying port on the Chilean coast. The year is 1847, and Eliza has just been stunned into rapture by the existence of Joaquin, her uncle’s employee, when he supervises delivery of goods to her home. This captivated glance evolves into a clandestine affair and Eliza ends up stowed away on a sailing ship - to the Gold Rush in California - as she chases after her errant lover. It nearly costs her her life.

Ms. Allende has skillfully put together a highly enjoyable epic of historical California. It’s a pastiche in which many of the epoch’s stock characters make an appearance: the heavyset madam with the heart of gold; the upstanding Quaker blacksmith who falls for a “soiled dove”; the yellow press journalist who deals more in fiction than fact. But the pastiche forms a mere backdrop for the drama unfolding in the lives of the two highly sympathetic main characters, Eliza and her friend, Tao Chi’en. That, and the human face she effectively places on the
legendary Gold Rush. In Daughter of Fortune the racism, genocide, greed run amok, frontier “justice,” excessive and grasping paranoia, all get a full treatment. Then, the inexorable change to more reliable wealth -  mercantilism, the professions, construction, and the sometimes deceiving trappings of civilization find their way into this nuanced and encyclopedic work.

Extra praise belongs to Ms. Allende’s conclusion. She sets every necessary trend and direction into place, and simply lets us imagine it. This is lovely, sweeping, and balanced - a unique and highly recommended combination.

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