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Isabel Allende: Hija de la fortuna (Daughter of Fortune)

This is a rambling novel set in Chile and California in the middle of the 19th century, telling the tale of an English woman born in Chile and a Chinaman who had landed there by mistake. The story actually goes back a bit. The three Sommers siblings – John, Jeremy and Rose – all remain single. Rose came closest to getting married when she eloped with a Viennese tenor. The tenor told her everything about himself, including all his love affairs and even his Sadeian fantasies. However, as her brother, Jeremy, pointed out when he arrives at their love-nest, he omitted one key detail, namely that he was married with two children. When Jeremy gets an opportunity to work for a British export firm in Chile, he takes advantage of this to remove Rose from England and they head off to Chile, never to return. Their brother, John, a sea captain, intermittently joins them there. Everything is calm and mundane till, one day, they find a baby on their doorstep, well wrapped in a basket. They decide to keep the baby – they do not know who she is – and call her Eliza.

Eliza, of course, grows up and, instead of falling in love with a nice English boy, she falls in love with a poor Chilean, Joaquín Andieta. Of course, she cannot tell Jeremy and Rose, so conducts her affair in secret, aided only by her nanny, Mama Friesa. When Andieta decides the only way to make any money is to head off to California, where the Gold Rush has just started, Eliza is devastated but then determines to follow him. This is difficult, not only because a woman traveling to California is generally considered a prostitute, but also because she is pregnant.

Tao Chi’en is a Chinese zhong yi (a doctor). Tao Chi’en is not his real name. As the fourth son in a poor family, he was known only as Fourth Son. However, his family was so poor that he was sold into servitude but, eventually, came to work for a doctor who trained him into Chinese medicine (and also gave him his name). When the doctor died, Tao Chi’en took his money and went to Hong Kong. He went straight to the gaming rooms where he lost all the money but was able to set up as a doctor and make a living. He married Lin (who sadly died) but was tricked into getting drunk by John Sommers and press-ganged, thereby ending up in Chile. It is he that helps Eliza get on a ship to San Francisco and helps her in California.

Both manage to survive in California. Tao Chi’en works as a doctor (though picks up some Western medical techniques) while Eliza, disguised a boy, works in a whorehouse (but not as a whore). All the while she searches for Andieta but without success. However, she hears of a bandit – a sort of Robin Hood figure – called Joaquín Murieta and wonders if it is really Andieta. Allende gives us a fascinating portrait of the gold diggings and the life around them during this period as we follow the adventures of Eliza and Tao Chi’en. Of course, Eliza finds out about Andieta/Murieta, is reconciled with the Sommers, finds out who her parents were and everyone lives happily ever after.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1999 by Plaza & Janés
First published in English 1999 by HarperCollins