Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia
(2000) is the sequel to her novel Daughters of Fortune
and the prequel to her first novel The House of the Spirits
. Set against the backdrop of War of the Pacific and then the revolution in Chile, the novel comments on women’s roles in Chilean society. The story is about Aurora del Valle, a young Chinese-Chilean woman, and her search for her roots. Raised in privilege, she wants to solve the mysteries of her family and the first five years of her life, which she cannot remember. Temporally, the novel is set two generations after Daughters of Fortune
, which is the story of Aurora’s maternal grandmother, Eliza Sommers.
The construction of the novel is unusual; Allende does not utilize chapters; scene breaks are signified by an extra space between paragraphs. The novel is separated into three parts. Also, even though the novel is firmly in the historical fiction genre, there is overlap with other genres. Aurora narrates the novel as though she is writing her own memoir, which gives the novel a curious, pseudo-autobiographical slant. Lynn’s fate in Part I is also reminiscent of the popular and histrionic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American seduction novel. Seduction novels are distantly related to conduct fiction; in seduction novels, the wayward and naïve female protagonist fails to guard her virtue, is seduced by a rake, and is abandoned by everyone to die in disgrace and poverty as a result. Lynn’s own fate is not so bleak, but the outcome is the same.
Part I chronicles the time between 1862-1880 and introduces Aurora’s extended family—her grandparents, her parents, and various uncles and cousins. Her mother, Lynn, is a young woman of incomparable beauty. She is seduced and abandoned by Matías del Valle but marries Matías’s cousin Severo. It is a one-sided love affair; Severo loves Lynn, but Lynn only has eyes for Matías, who is a scoundrel. Matías, already suffering from what is later revealed to be syphilis, avoids any potential entanglement in marriage and fatherhood by sailing away to Europe with his father, Feliciano’s onetime mistress, the courtesan Amanda Lowell. Severo marries Lynn with the hopes that she will come to love him someday, and in the meantime, the baby will have a legitimate name and inheritance. Although he is not Aurora’s blood father, the marriage and birth certificates list him as her legal father. At the end of Part I, Lynn goes into labor too early. The birth is difficult, and Lynn dies shortly after Aurora is born. Heartbroken, Severo leaves the infant with her maternal grandparents, Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi’en, and returns to Chile to fight in the army, hoping to die in the war. In Part II, he nearly gets his wish. Allende is unflinching in her descriptions of the war and the atrocities committed. Severo fights for eleven months before he is wounded by a girl who buries an ax in his foot. Part of his leg is amputated in a dingy hospital overrun with dead and dying men before he is sent home where his cousin and first love Nivea helps nurse him back to health and marries him. Together they have fifteen children, eleven who survive.
Part II (1880-1896) continues the stories of the characters introduced in Part I and includes Aurora’s childhood from the age of five. She cannot remember her life before she is suddenly swept off to be raised by her wealthy paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle, but thinks that something terrible must have happened to her maternal grandparents. She has a recurring nightmare of being pulled away from safety and of a dark puddle on the floor that might be blood. Eliza brings her to Pauline after her husband’s death, because she must return his body to China, and she wants Aurora to have a place in the world. Pauline, who always wanted a daughter of her own but only ever had sons, agrees to take the girl in and raise her with every advantage. The family moves from California to Chile and Paulina sets about hiding the truth of Aurora’s parentage and her grandfather’s death. The family’s arrival in Chile causes some uproar, and Pauline begins charity work in order to damage control their image.
Aurora is educated at home after she runs away from a couple of convent boarding schools and is rejected by another. Her teacher is an agnostic, a socialist, and a suffragette. Senorita Pineda and Pauline get along famously and start foundations to help women and children climb out of poverty. Between those two women and Nivea, a young Aurora is surrounded by intelligent, tough women who are willing to go against the intensely patriarchal system.
When Aurora is a pre-teen, her syphilitic father, Matías, returns to Chile, accompanied by Amanda Lowell. Having been in Europe all through the War of the Pacific and the bloody revolution and civil war, he only returns home to his family now that he is dying. Aurora slowly gets the story of her parents out of him. When she is thirteen, she falls in love with photography; her grandmother is horrified that she intends to be a photographer for a living.
Part III spans 1896-1910. Pauline starts a wine and cheese businesses and confronts the fact that she’s getting older and her health is declining. They visit London and Paris, reconnecting with former foe Amanda Lowell, and learning about wine and cheese. While abroad, Aurora falls in love with another Chilean aristocrat, Diego Domínguez and marries him, despite warnings against the match. After a year of marriage, she finds her husband has been conducting a long-term affair with his brother’s wife. They separate and go their separate ways. She returns home, and Pauline dies shortly afterward. After a year of separation, she begins an affair with Iván Rodovic, a doctor she had met some years earlier. She also works as a photographer. Finally, she finds out what happened to her grandfather Tao Chi’en all those years ago, and Eliza Sommers reappears in her life. Tao Chi’en, involved with rescuing sex traffic victims, had been beaten almost to death for his efforts. His granddaughter witnessed it. To spare him a lifetime of great pain and infirmity, Eliza had helped him commit suicide.
At the end of the 2014 edition of the book are some bonus materials, including two interviews with Allende, brief summaries of her other novels, and Allende’s own memoirs.