Book: Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
Age/Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: In a bath, surrounded by bubbles (and candlelight, if feasible)
Reading Accoutrements: An Ocean-scented Bath bomb, empanadas, potstickers, or other snacks inspired by Chile or China.
Content Notes: Racism, Sexism, Classism
If you remember my review of Paula, you know that I’ve been planning on reading more Isabel Allende. Paula was an engaging memoir, and it made me curious to experience Allende’s fiction. I didn’t know what book I wanted to start with, though I was thinking I’d probably check out her first, The House of the Spirits, since the idea of magical realism intrigues me. But I found Daughter of Fortune on one of my recent thrifting adventures, and the second I read the description, I knew I wanted to read this book. Here’s my paraphrase of the blurb on the back:
In the 1800s, a young orphan raised by British expats in Chile runs away to California to find her lover, who has gone off in search of gold. Yes, we’re in the middle of the gold rush, and Eliza, with help from Tao Chien, a Chinese doctor, manages to establish a life of relative independence where she can move freely among the single men and prostitutes that make up most of the Californian population as she searches for her elusive love.
See? Doesn’t that sound cool? We get some Chile, some gold rush California, and an independent woman in a time where women weren’t often able to be independent. I was sold.
Daughter of Fortune starts in Chile, where we are introduced to Eliza as a child. We learn about her talents and personality, and the fact that she was abandoned as a baby at the home of English Aristocrats, siblings Rose and Jeremy Sommers. Rose and Jeremy are perpetually single, and have worked out an arrangement to keep them active in society despite their failure to adhere to the path of marriage for social status. Rose manages the home and organizes social events, while Jeremy works for a British distribution and shipping company and takes care of the finances. Their brother, John, is a ship’s captain, who visits sporadically to shower them with exotic gifts and news of other countries.
Despite refusing to marry, Rose does have the urge to be a mother, so she decides to raise Eliza, aided by the housekeeper, a Chilean native called Mama Fresia. Eliza spends her childhood being taught the rules and conventions of British society, but also spending a lot of time with the house staff, learning how to cook and garden, amongst other practical skills.
The first half of the book takes place in this British enclave of Chile, where Eliza isn’t often the main character. The plot does center around her, but in establishing the world and circumstances that lead to Eliza’s experiences in California, we see a lot of other characters. The Sommers siblings factor prominently, as do several people in their social circle. I enjoyed almost all the characterization that happened in this part of the book, but I admit, I was getting impatient to get to California. Seeing Eliza grow up was fine, but I came for independent woman-ing in California, gosh-dangit, not a description of British expat social life.
A little less than halfway through the book, we finally see 16-year-old Eliza fall in love with a politically-minded local man a few years older than her. They have a brief, passionate love affair, keeping their meetings secret from everyone, as none of the relevant adults would approve.
Here is where I was frustrated with some of the characters – though I do think this frustration is something that Allende probably anticipated or even intentionally planned for. Rose Sommers had a romantic indiscretion in her past that basically led to her being pulled out of society at large. Going to Chile with her brother for his work turned out to be her saving grace, her only way to have an active social life without having to face the consequences of her almost-scandal. She works really hard to carve an independent life for herself, and she shuns the advances of men interested in marriage.
Yet, as Eliza ages, Rose’s focus is to find Eliza a socially-acceptable husband. Since Eliza is of unknown origin, she doesn’t have the resource of family wealth or a prestigious name to secure a desirable marriage. Rose works hard at saving jewels from John’s voyages and tries to convince Jeremy to officially adopt Eliza to make marriage easier. Jeremy, who for the most part is standoffish and feels his sister’s obsessions are pointless, at one point suggests that since Eliza is good at cooking and thoroughly enjoys it, she might be able to open a small bakery and make a living. Rose scorns this idea, as it would kill Eliza’s standing in society. This was probably the one time in the book I agreed with Jeremy over Rose. Rose’s obsession with social-status over happiness completely lacks self awareness. Society trapped her, and instead of allowing Eliza a free life, she works as hard as she can to trap her the same way. She is so dedicated to perpetuating the system even though she admits it is unfair to women.
Eliza reminisces at one point that Rose told her that women can do whatever they want, as long as they do it discreetly. To Rose, discretion is revered above any actual adherence to societal norms. In California, Eliza witnesses many women overtly subverting society’s expectations. A lot of these women are prostitutes, but not all of them. Eliza mainly gets around independently by pretending to be a man, and she meets others that she expects are doing the same thing. At one point, she tells her friend Tao Chien that being a man is tedious and exhausting, but being a woman is worse. She hates having to act a certain way, but admits that it grants her freedoms she would not have otherwise. I felt like this was a great illustration of how toxic masculinity harms men, but they are still afforded male privilege over women.
Another character who escapes her outlined path as a woman is Pauline Rodriguez de Santa Cruz. She grew up in the same city as Eliza and is several years older. Her family would invite the Sommers on fancy weekend trips. Pauline ran away with a man her father did not approve of. Due to social connections and some conspiring, her father was forced to honor the marriage. Pauline managed to convince her husband to give her financial freedom- that is, money that came from her ideas for the business went into an account that belonged to her. Her husband is not happy about giving her more freedom than women typically receive, but does so because he believes it’s fair, and because he knows his wife is a smart woman. All of her business decisions pan out, and they quickly establish themselves among the Californian elite.
I loved how Allende weaves multiple character arcs together to paint an overall picture of what California and Chile looked like during the gold rush. We see many people’s perspectives, which really builds out the world. Pauline’s story arc is mainly used as a world-building one, because it leads many characters to California who would not have been brought there otherwise.
I also enjoyed how we get to see the background of so many characters. Rose gets extensive backstory, as does Jacob Todd, who perpetually seeks Rose’s affections. We see Eliza’s friend, Tao Chien’s, whole life laid out, which shows a lot of details of how racism and sexism were functioning at this time. Since children weren’t valued in China during this period, Tao Chien didn’t even have a name growing up – he was known as “fourth son.” He had a sister who was sold, probably into sex slavery, which he sees as unfortunate, but just the way the world is. He is eventually also sold, but since he is skilled in herbs and medicines, he is sold again to a doctor who raises him as his own son. As a young man, Tao Chien is obsessed with finding a subservient wife with small feet, even though he knows that foot binding is painful for the woman. Throughout the book, as he forms actual relationships with women, he starts to see women as people, even if he still doesn’t always blame men for treating them as less than. He even starts working to liberate young Chinese girls from sex slavery, with the help of Eliza. By showing his origins, we see not only the conditions that instilled his beliefs, but the work he does to change his views.
Daughter of Fortune paints a very blunt picture of how women and non-white people were treated during the California Gold Rush. It shows how racist laws were instilled that are still perpetuated by our systems today. Tao Chien was shanghai’d (kidnapped and forced to work on a ship) and was facing a life working on a ship forever until Eliza convinced him to stay in California with her. Tao Chien and many other characters manage to rise above the prejudices against them, but they are surrounded by people who don’t. Eliza witnesses hangings, and even is part of a group secret that results in lynchings. No one is innocent – everyone is complicit in the perpetuation of inequality.
I greatly enjoyed this book and it confirmed my intention to read more of Allende’s work. The story was engaging, the characters realistic, and the ending left me satisfied without quite tying everything up. This is a book I would definitely recommend, especially if you like historical fiction.
Have you read any books about the gold rush? Share titles in the comments!