Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende

My Mom gave me this book to read, along with a rave review. There are lots of good things to commend it, but there are also a few issues that can make for a jarring read.

Daughter of Fortune is about a woman who leaves Chile in pursuit of her lover, but ultimately finds her independence and makes her own life in the western United States. After escaping a regimented and formal life in the upper eschelons of Chilean society, Eliza is free to define not only herself but her understanding of family. The story is full of colorful characters and compelling. The story is a beautiful demonstration of the blending of cultures into America's famous melting pot, not only through Eliza's adventures but the parallel journey of her friend Tai Chi'en, a Chinese physician who helps smuggle Eliza to the United States.

The author has said that this book reflects her own struggle to understand feminism's role in her life, and there's a lot of value in reading about that development, even though I personally find the end result problematic. Eliza spends much of the book driven by her pursuit of her lover, Joaquin Andieta, dominated by the mental snapshot she has of him back in Chile. As she makes her way through the world, her dependence on his image begins to wane, but he remains a primary driver throughout the work.


Tao Chi'en has his own gender attachments, and spends much of the book thinking about his be-pedestaled dead wife, who is clearly a woman he saw as perfect in life, but has taken on an almost saintly glow after her death. Eliza winds up with Tao in the end, and this is where I think the feminst perspective takes a hit. Though the book has tracked Eliza's progress from being defined by the man in her life to being independent enough to make her way in the world alone, she winds up reattaching herself to a man who we know idealizes the women in his life excessively and is deeply attached to normative gender roles (for example, he pointedly searches for a wife with bound feet in the section about his life). I do not believe that feminism means the end of marriage or the abandonment of love, but to have Eliza wind up with someone so invested in the same gender expectations that kept her so dependent on and driven by men creates a problem for Allende's feminist credentials.


The other thing I found strange and jarring was the clinical quality Allende gave to the romantic scenes. It was a little bit like reading a doctor's account of a gynecological exam - very matter of fact and very physiological. This wouldn't be nearly as problematic were the rest of the writing so lush and beautiful. Allende's descriptions of Chile, the western US and China relay the feeling of the places with lyrical accounts, and her characters are full and well-developed. Why they have such unsexy sex is a bit of a mystery to me, and was quite jarring to read.

In the end, I'd call this the beach-book version of Gabriel García Márquez, which might sound like a slight but is not intended as such. García Márquez can take a lot of effort to read, and though it's some of the most worthwhile effort you can expend in literature, sometimes you just want a similar flavor in a lighter version. This would be a particularly good choice for people interested in the gold-inspired westward expansion in the US, as it provides an interesting look at the chaos of that era.

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