read by Blair Brown
This was a re-read of my Washington book club's selection from 2001-2002. This time I listened to the audiobook, read by actress Blair Brown (who narrates all of Allende's audiobooks quite well). Eliza Sommers, the main character, is left as an infant on the doorstep of the wealthy English Sommers family, spinster Rose and her unmarried brother Jeremy, in Valparaiso, Chile, in 1832. She later falls in love with Joaquin Andieta, a clerk in Jeremy's business, and follows him after he leaves Chile for the California Gold Rush in 1849.
She stows away on a ship whose Chinese cook is Tao Chi'en, who also happens to be a doctor who saves her life and becomes her best friend. When they reach California, Joaquin doesn't know Eliza was coming, of course, so in the rest of the book she's trying to catch up with him. She disguises herself as a boy and pretends to be Joaquin's brother, Elias. In her quest she meets many interesting characters, even spending some time with a traveling brothel.
The book moves rather slowly at first, as Allende develops her characters, and ends rather abruptly. Portrait in Sepia is a sort of sequel that answers some of the questions this ending leaves us. I thought it was interesting that Allende implies that Andieta might have become the infamous Joaquin Murieta - who inspired the character of Zorro. Allende later gave her interpretation of the Zorro legend in her 2005 fictional biography Zorro.
Allende is Chilean by birth and now lives in California, and uses her knowledge of the history of both places to advantage here. The character development is excellent; I really cared about Eliza and especially Tao Chi'en (and missed him when he wasn't with Eliza). While many don't think this book is as good as some of Allende's others, such as The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enough to read it twice.
© Amanda Pape - 2010
[This audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]