Daughter of Fortune

I went to the annual Bristol Comics Expo last weekend. I’ve been going for many years, as it’s a great chance to see many friends from further up-country who never make it further west. The downside this year was that I couldn’t spend the nights in the con bar as usual. Well, I could have been there but watching others get drunk when I can’t just depresses me. So while my husband was off drinking beer, I settled down in the hotel room with a book.

Daughter of Fortune

Isabel Allande
(Flamingo, 1999 – now published under Harper Perennial)

The baby Eliza was found on the Sommers’ doorstep in Chile in the 1830s. She’s taken in and raised by spinster Rose Sommers and cook Mama Fresia. Rose’s brother Jeremy runs the British Import and Export Company and constantly worries about their reputation. Her other brother, John, is a sea captain. As Eliza grows up, she straddles the English ex-pat world and that of the Chileans before idealised notions of romance send her to California during the 1849 Gold Rush. In the wake of her fleeing, the careful fa├žades of the Sommers siblings crumble revealing how Rose has dealt with her lost lover and how many secrets the bluff and open John actually has.

This is a romantic adventure novel, fast-paced and restless. Just when you have grasped a world, Eliza moves on to another. She is constantly escaping: from the confines of the ex-pat culture, from Chile, from her gender, to a ship’s hold, a travelling brothel and San Francisco. This contrasts with Rose who had a similar teenage passion stifled and escapes only in her mind. Rose is unable to leave the past behind whereas Eliza flings it aside.

Each character gets their own voice, their own history introduced as they arrive in the story. So the arrival of Tao Chi’en, a healer, sends the plot off to Imperial China as we learn of his childhood, training and marriage. This can sometimes be distracting but it forces a useful breathing space in Eliza’s adventures that prevents her story from becoming entirely implausible.

This is a highly enjoyable and escapist novel that includes unpleasant scenes that are never treated glibly.

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