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Isabel Allende: Retrato en Sepia (Portrait in Sepia)

This book follows on from where Hija de la fortuna (Daughter of Fortune) left off but, like many sequels, it is not as good. The heroine – if she can be so called – is Aurora del Valle, granddaughter of Tao Chi’en and Eliza Sommers. However, she is not born till around page 100 and when she is born, she tells her story but we see her more as an observer than a participant. Indeed, the only significant parts of her story where she is the key player are her birth (she causes the death of her mother, Lynn) and her failed marriage. Even her decision to become a photographer – and her accounts of her photography trips – leaves us cold.

The circumstances of her death, which Allende explains at great length, are complicated but, basically, Lynn is in love with Matías, who is in love with someone else but impregnates Lynn. Severo del Valle, however, is in love with Lynn and marries her even though he knows that she is carrying his cousin’s child but she dies in childbirth and he goes off to war, loses a leg and comes back and marries Nívea. Aurora is brought up first by Tao Chi’en and Eliza Sommers but when Tao Chi’en dies, Eliza returns to China to bury him and leaves the five-year old Aurora with the matriarch of the del Valle family, Paulina. And most of the story is about Paulina.

Paulina is Chilean and a widow, living in San Francisco. She has a head for business and is aided by Frederick Williams, about whom there are many stories but, as we find out at the end, is a former English convict. Paulina keeps the family together through good times and bad and sets up a variety of interesting businesses when they move back to Chile – from sugar importing to wine growing. She holds firm during the Civil War (with the help of the redoubtable Frederick) and is clearly admired by her granddaughter. But the fascinating Paulina does not make up for what is essentially a fairly dull novel.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2000 by Plaza & Janés
First published in English 2001 by HarperCollins