It is what you do in this world that matters, not how you come into it.
What it is and what it isn’t: I put off reading this for a long time because I had heard that Allende writes magical realism, a genre that does not usually agree with me. When I did finally read it, I was surprised to find that this novel doesn’t match my conception of what “magical realism” is. Perhaps it is a new use for the term: fiction that is realistic but nevertheless magically transports we readers to another time and place, and installs us completely in the head of the protagonist.
What it’s about: Eliza is discovered as an infant abandoned on the doorstep of a British brother and sister living in Valparaiso, Chile. Over the objections of her straitlaced brother, Rose Sommers–a headstrong, independent woman who says that the best thing about marriage is “becoming a widow”–adopts and raises the child, but keeps her at an arm’s length. When Eliza is sixteen, she meets Joaquin Andieta, an idealistic and penniless poet, and she falls headlong into the uncritical passion of first love. Just then, the Gold Rush begins in California, and Andieta disappears from Eliza’s life to seek his fortune there. When she learns she is pregnant, Eliza decides to track down her lover. With the help of a Chinese physician who came over on her uncle’s ship, Tao Chi’en, she stows away in the hold of a ship bound for San Francisco, where she becomes very ill. During that miserable voyage, Eliza experiences a rebirth, and she emerges from the ship into daylight as someone completely new and without identity, disembarking into a city that is also brand new and making itself into something unique and purely American. The rest of the story reveals how Eliza rebuilds her identity while searching for her lover. She dons a series of disguises until finally she is able to re-emerge as herself, a woman not defined by the strictures of her day but constructed from within.
Why I liked it: Set against the backdrop of the mad rush to California in search of gold, Allende reveals history through the eyes of the people who lived it but don’t usually get to tell the story: women and non-whites. She creates a diverse and three-dimensional world that feels both real and different from the stories we usually get to hear. Eliza’s journey of self-discovery absolutely swept me away.
You might like it if: You enjoy historical fiction and women’s stories, or you want to read from the perspective of different cultures.