by Kris Dinnison
Isabel Allende has a knack for luring the reader into unfamiliar worlds and then making the magical seem familiar. Her books are peopled by diverse and complex characters whose quests for meaning seem to connect effortlessly to those same desires in her readership. Her newest novel, Portrait in Sepia, is no exception.
The novel is a sequel to Allende's last book, Daughter of Fortune. Set during the California Gold Rush, Daughter told of the daring journey of Eliza Sommers, a young pregnant woman from Chile who came to California in search of her lover and found instead the love of her life, a Chinese healer named Tao Chi'en. Portrait in Sepia takes up the story of the granddaughter of this unique couple, Aurora Del Valle. After a tragic childhood in San Francisco's Chinatown, Aurora finds herself the ward of her paternal grandmother, Paulina Del Valle. The ensuing story is one of two strong women at the end of the 19th century and the ways that they carefully pick their way around society's expectations in order to grow. But the story is not only theirs. Allende cleverly introduces us to the idea that most of the men and women of the time were struggling to find their places in a turbulent world.
The relationships between the families and their various members are, as in all of Allende's books, complex. Fans of The House of the Spirits, one of Allende's early books, will smile when they get to know Severo and Nivea Del Valle, the parents of Clara the clairvoyant, and Rosa, her beautiful and tragic green-haired sister. However, in spite of all the twists, turns and weaves that tie the various characters together, their relationships never appear contrived or manipulated. Portrait in Sepia is another luxurious read from this talented author.
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