Portrait in Sepia is the second book I have read by Isabel Allende, and is the sequel to the first one I read, Daughter of Fortune. I really enjoyed Daughter of Fortune, but for some reason I was nervous about starting another Allende book. I think I find her books a tad intimidating, because they are heavy on narrative and description and require perhaps more concentration than dialogue-heavy books. However, once I got into Portrait in Sepia, I found it engaging and really liked it.
The story takes place in San Francisco and Chile in the latter part of the 19th century. It is primarily the story of the first-person narrator’s life so far, up to age 30. Named Aurora, she is the granddaughter of the main character in Daughter of Fortune. The first portion of the book is a history of her immediate ancestors, mainly in the third person, but framed by Aurora’s first-person narrative. If I were to summarize the events of the novel here it probably wouldn’t sound particularly interesting – the story is really in the details, in the rich characters and descriptions.
As I mentioned earlier, Allende’s writing is heavy on narrative and description. While this makes it somewhat more intimidating to get into, it also makes it beautiful and lush. I did read it in translation to English, but I know some Spanish and I can imagine the rich, lyrical tones of the original Spanish. As a sample, here is the opening passage:
I came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San Francisco, in the home of my maternal grandparents. While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to open a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects, its inexhaustible swarms of human bees hurrying back and forth. I was born in the early morning, but in Chinatown the clocks obey no rules, and at that hour the market, the cart traffic, the woeful barking of caged dogs awaiting the butcher’s cleaver, were beginning to heat up. I have come to know the details of my birth rather late in life, but it would have been worse not to discover them at all, they could have been lost forever in the cracks and crannies of oblivion. There are so many secrets in my family that I may never have time to unveil them all: truth is short-lived, watered down by torrents of rain.
I highly recommend Portrait in Sepia and I intend to read more by Isabel Allende.