------------------------------- Isabel Allende will read from "Daughter of Fortune" at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Sponsored by Elliott Bay Book Co. Information: 206-624-6600.
"Daughter of Fortune" by Isabel Allende HarperCollins, $26 -------------------------------
Eat your heart out, Charles Dickens. Isabel Allende's new tale of orphans and bastards is as rich in intrigue, quirky characters and gritty details as "Oliver Twist." Allende throws steamy sex into the bargain, and stirs up the most mesmerizing novel of her career.
"Daughter of Fortune" is a 19th-century tale. It ranges from rural China to Valparaiso, Chile, but its ultimate setting is California in 1849, when the regions around San Francisco and Sacramento became a festering broth of rascals in pursuit of gold and revolutionaries determined to reclaim the territory for Mexico. Allende renders each of the settings in technicolor.
The story is that of Eliza Sommers, a foundling taken in by a Victorian English spinster, Miss Rose, and her too-starchy brother Jeremy, in Valparaiso. Miss Rose tells Eliza she appeared in a basket, in a nightgown worked with French knots, and sheets edged with Brussels lace, topped with a mink coverlet, and six gold coins tied up in a silk handkerchief. But the Indian maid, Mama Fresia, declares flatly that she was left bundled in a man's sweater, in an old soap crate.
Eliza's origin is one of many secrets in the upper-class
household, where Miss Rose, who has a past no one speaks of, fends off would-be suitors to spend her hours writing things that no one is permitted to read. Love drives the 16-year-old Eliza to stow away on a ship bound for California to follow her impoverished working-class lover, who has gone to seek his fortune in the gold fields. The captain of a merchant schooner inflames all of Valparaiso when he reports in a choking voice, "There's gold everywhere, you can shovel it up, they say there are nuggets the size of oranges."
To avoid being pursued, Eliza bribes a Chinese physician who has been shanghaied as a crewman on a schooner to hide her on board. In Tao Chi'en she finds her soul mate, though neither of them recognizes that it is so. In California, where women are so rare that men pay an ounce of gold dust merely to peep at one in an adjoining room, Eliza disguises herself as a skinny Chinese boy. To make her way in safety and secrecy, she plays the piano in a traveling bordello.
Allende is a master storyteller who captures the heart as she engages the mind. When she writes of Tao Chi'en, sold into servitude by his family as a fourth son of little account, we gain access to traditional Chinese society on several levels. Tao Chi'en has the good fortune to be apprenticed to a healer. In addition to learning acupuncture and traditional herbal medicine, he learns to serve tea, write poetry, meditate and practice calligraphy, the art that in China distinguishes the refined man from the scoundrel.
Scoundrels abound in California, where Tao Chi'en soon finds himself treating child slaves who live brief, brutal lives in a Chinatown whorehouse. Allende's intimate scenes of such places are vivid reminders that the facts of history are both more dramatic and more gaudy than any fiction. She summons up re-enactments of the racial and religious intolerance of a time when Indians were hunted like wild game, and bushwhacking Mexicans and Chileans was thought of as good sport. We might only wish it were fiction.
The principal fictions of the time would appear to have been written by enterprising reporters such as Eliza's acquaintance Jacob Fremont, who pens imaginary "interviews" with a notoriously cruel California bandit who may or may not be Eliza's Chilean lover. In Chile, she knew Fremont under another name, as an Englishman who came to win a bet by selling a shipment of Protestant Bibles in a Catholic country, and prospered by collecting money to open a mythical mission in Patagonia.
A deep undercurrent of frustrated love runs through the lives of all of these characters, including Capt. John Sommers, the brother of Miss Rose and Jeremy, who tries to find Eliza in California. The struggle to come to terms with love, and to allow it, with all its erotic overtones, to occupy in life the central place it commands in the psyche, is the core of Allende's drama.
Allende, who was born in Peru, grew up in Chile. She is the author of four earlier novels, "The House of the Spirits," "Of Love and Shadows," "Eva Luna" and "The Infinite Plan," as well as a collection of short stories, "The Stories of Eva Luna," and the memoirs "Paula" and "Aphrodite." All of the earlier books grew out of the lives of her own family and friends, as she turned fact into fiction laced with magic. With "Daughter of Fortune," she reveals more than her considerable talent for literary invention. She makes fiction read like fact.
Deloris Tarzan Ament, formerly the art critic for The Seattle Times, frequently reviews fiction for The Times' book section.