Review

Portrait in Sepia

by Isabel Allende



Isabel Allende's latest novel, PORTRAIT IN SEPIA, is the
story of Aurora del Valle, her extraordinary family, her turbulent
childhood, and her journey of self-discovery. Like most Allende
novels, PORTRAIT IN SEPIA is sweeping in scope. It moves from San
Francisco to Europe to Chile, from extravagant California mansions
to South American battlefields and Chilean vineyards. It is
ostensibly a family drama but it also explores themes of politics,
love, sex, and most importantly, identity.

Born in 1862, Aurora is raised for the first five years of her life
by her maternal grandparents in San Francisco's Chinatown. Her wise
and brave grandfather, Tao Chi'en, surrounds her in love after her
mother's death, which occurred hours after she was born. Aurora, or
Mai Ling as she was called by Tao Chi'en, has little contact with
her paternal, Chilean family until tragedy strikes and she is sent
to live with them. Far from the comforts of Chinatown and Tao
Chi'en, she lives with her passionate and flamboyant grandmother,
Paulina del Valle. Life with the del Valle family is always
dramatic and dynamic and becomes even more so as Aurora and her
grandmother leave America and move to Chile. As she grows, Aurora
learns more about both sides of her family, about the mystery of
her father, about politics, about the ravages of war and poverty,
and about the ravages and joys of love. Out of the faded memories
of her shattered childhood Aurora begins to not only unravel the
mystery of her past, finding meaning in the nightmares that haunt
her, but she also begins to understand and assert her own needs and
emerges as a strong and whole woman.

To arrive at self-understanding, self-acceptance, and peace Aurora
must seek out the truth about her mother, her absent father, her
grandfather, and her missing maternal grandmother (Eliza Sommers,
the subject of Allende's earlier novel, DAUGHTER OF
FORTUNE). The reappearance, by the end of the novel, of
several characters who can help complete Aurora's biography
contributes to her sense of closure but may feel too artificial or
convenient to the reader. Realism, however, has never been
Allende's strong point. Her style instead blends the "magical
realism" of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the juiciest of soap operas
and romance novels and adds the exaggerated drama of Victorian
morality plays. PORTRAIT IN SEPIA is no exception. Every character
is heroic; even the adulterous husband is heroic in the scope and
breadth of his true love for his mistress.

While Allende's simple life lessons wrapped in historical drama do
not make for a thought-provoking or philosophical read, there is
something for almost everyone in this novel. As a storyteller,
Allende is wonderful. And, because she allows Aurora to narrate her
own brutal and beautiful story, the reader is easily caught up in
the often-unbelievable events. Aurora del Valle's emergence as a
woman strong enough to share her own painful history (and
triumphant present) makes this novel an enjoyable and recommendable
read.

Reviewed by Sarah Egelman on January 22, 2011

Portrait in Sepia
by Isabel Allende

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060936363
  • ISBN-13: 9780060936365