After running out of time to finish Island Beneath the Sea before having to return it to the library, I was just hooked enough on Allende’s style that I knew I had to have more, so I did a quick cull of my bookshelves and came up with Daughter of Fortune. The description of the book made it sound right up my alley:
“An orphan raised in Valpariso, Chile, by a Victorian spinster and her rigid brother, young, vivacious Elizabeth Sommers follows her lover to California during the Gold Rush of 1849. She enters a rough-and-tumble world whose newly arrived inhabitants are driven mad by gold fever. A society of single men and prostitutes among whom Eliza moves – with the help of her good friend and savior, the Chinese doctor Tao Chi’en – California opens the door to a new life of freedom and independence for the young Chilean. Her search for the elusive lover gradually turns into another kind of journey, and by the time she finally hears news of him, Eliza must decide who her true love really is.” – Back Cover
However, I must not have read this description that closely, because I was expecting this book to be much more about the relationship between Elizabeth and her young lover Joaquin Andieta. It’s not, to put it bluntly. Rather, the story is far more about the Elizabeth that the character finds within herself once she reaches California. The young girl spends most of her young life in Chile, raised by Miss Rose and her brother Jeremy. She is taught English manners, mannerisms, and forms of entertainment (i.e. singing ‘bawdy’ songs and playing the piano with a metal rod taped to her back to improve her posture). She is also, however, raised with a very Victorian concept of gender roles and what is/isn’t acceptable for men and women to do. This is, perhaps, the biggest leap that Eliza makes once she reaches America – disguising herself as a boy in order to avoid capture as a stowaway, and continuing the ruse so as to avoid making prostitution a career, she manages to learn that the proper mannerisms that she was taught are not the only way to live life, and that the world is too wide to be told that one must always remain proper in it. These discussions of gender issues and how early America was removed from such Victorian ideas (although, in all honesty, America wasn’t without it’s gender roles at the time. The fact that, had Eliza been a woman, prostitution would have been her only option for making her living speak to that) were perhaps some of my favorite parts of the book.
I also thought that Allende did a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere that must have existed in California during the time of the gold rush. In a land just won from Mexico, the discovery of gold literally threw open the shores to what was basically virgin territory. There is excitement and trepidation and greed and the promise of hope, all wrapped up in the lives of the thousands and thousands of people who came to make their dreams of riches and wonderful lives come true. However, to the flip side of this is also the disappointment that arose when the streets weren’t in fact paved with gold, and that racism was still overtly rampant in this new country. Allende did a marvelous job of creating these feelings in the reader, and its a time in American history I know find myself with a much greater interest in reading about.
However, there were also a number of problems with the book. I felt that Eliza and her Chinese doctor friend/almost lover/love of her heart Tao Chi’en were both rather flat characters – especially Eliza, which I felt was double disappointing, considering that she’s the main character. For a girl who is supposed to be finding herself, she does an awful lot of whining about how much she misses her lover and about how she should really be trying to find him instead of hanging out with prostitutes and falling in love with the Chinese doctor. I also felt like there was quite a bit more potential for the relationship between Tao and Eliza to deepen, but it never quite does. Yes, there are mentions of deeper feelings that may be lying just below the surface. But, for the most part, there just really isn’t a whole lot there. And it was disappointing – as if Allende self-edited herself out of the chance to explore this other side of the story.
Ultimately, at the end of the novel, I felt it was an okay book. Not great. I didn’t necessarily feel as though I’d wasted my time. But I wasn’t nearly as excited about it as I had been when I first opened the book. The sweeping location of the book lends it some excitement, but if you’re looking for some of the deeper and truly great characters that Allende creates, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. Happy reading!