On my bookshelf: Daughter of Fortune (Isabel Allende)

As a graduate student, I don’t have much time to read for fun. I make lists on top of lists of books that I want to read, and have even considered getting an Audible membership. I used to read a handful of books per month, and now I’m lucky if I can squeeze a few in per year. I want to be more intentional this year, so I’ve made a goal to read 1 book per month.

Technically, I read Daughter of Fortune last year, so it may be cheating. But I won’t tell if you won’t.

I first bought Daughter of Fortune second-hand at a rummage sale in rural Georgia when I was in community college years ago, and had not bothered to read it until now. It had been accumulating dust on my bookshelf for years. When I relocated to Chicago, I decided to bring it along for the ride.

I brought this unread book, boxes of other unread books, a lot of unworn clothes, and even more unused things with me. When some people move, they purge all of their belongings. Not me. I clung to them. Nothing made me feel more like myself than holding onto this unread, forgotten book on the 17-hour car ride from Georgia. (Note: It doesn’t really take 17 hours to travel from Georgia to Illinois. It took me 17 hours because I like pit stops, a lot.)

To be honest, I never intended to read this book. I didn’t pick it out because I had some craving to read a novel about Isabel Allende. In hindsight, I should have because she is an amazing author. But truth be told, I think I picked this book out because I liked the cover, and Isabel is my dad’s middle name.

I started reading the book on a flight I took to Scotland, and finished it one night when I couldn’t fall asleep. The story starts off in Chile, and slowly transitions to San Francisco. Although the whole book spans over Eliza Sommers’ young adulthood, the most impacting moments for me were towards the very end. We initially think that Eliza is an orphan, dropped off at the door of the Sommers household. Rose Sommers, an expat who migrated to Chile with her brothers, adopts Eliza as her own, and we watch Eliza mature into this adventurous (and sometimes naive) woman. She experiences romance, betrayal, and thus decides to go on an adventure to San Francisco to find her true love. The book tackles many themes, such as social constructs, racism, sexism, feminism, the list goes on and on.

I won’t spoil the entire story for you, but I will say that the ending left me feeling meh. I wasn’t anxiously turning each page, waiting to see what Eliza was going to do next. But at the same time, I felt a certain loyalty to Eliza, and I wanted a more passionate ending for her. Maybe that is part of the story though–that you don’t always get the big ending that you were hoping for.

Some of my favorite moments from the book were when Mama Fresia gives words of advice to Eliza about men:

“I told you, child; any man, as miserable a man as he may be can do whatever he wants with you,” the Indian reminded her that night.

I found that it really said a lot about how women have always viewed men, and if men know (or care) about this. From my experience as a Latina, I think that this macho mentality is commonly found among men, and that women are very aware of it. Men can do whatever and whoever they want whenever they feel like it, and women just have to suck it up. It’s interesting to me that Eliza ignores every piece of advice she is given and pursues her affair with Joaquin Andieta anyway. Maybe it’s part of being young, or of being a young woman in denial, but how many times have we ignored society’s truths? And hope that we are the exception?

Another favorite scene was when a drunk miner forced himself into the room of Josefa, a Mexican dance hall worker. She forces him off, and ends up killing him. Even though she was just defending herself, she will end up being punished and hanged. Freemont, a journalist, wrote about the situation, and it made me think about the current state of the country. This book was published in the early 90s, but the theme still remains true. If you’re brown/black/yellow/blue, you will pay for the mistakes of the white majority.

“Josefa did not die because she was guilty, but because she was Mexican…”

Towards the end of the book, Tao Chi’en tries to help women escape the life of prostitution. If they are sick, but not dead, he will take them in and feign their deaths. Then, he will nurse them back to health and help them escape the area. At one point Eliza, who has befriended Tao Chi’en, wonders why no one else helps these girls. Tao is very insightful, and he knows how invisible he (and other minorities) are.

“Not everyone enjoys freedom. White people are blind and deaf, Eliza. Those girls are invisible, like the insane and beggars and dogs.”

The ending is very controversial. Some people love it, others hate it. I’m on the fence. I think that Eliza deserved a more fitting ending, but maybe this is the only ending that would fit. To write a different ending would mean that Eliza is not who we all thought she was. She had traveled to San Francisco to look for Joaquin, her lover. She continually looked for him, and never found him. She heard rumors that there was a criminal who looked like Joaquin, but she wasn’t sure that it was him. Her lover could not be this callous criminal that everyone was talking about. As time goes on, Eliza is letting go of Joaquin, and begins to see Tao in a new, romantic way. As she decides to stop looking for Joaquin, his doppelganger criminal is caught and beheaded. His decapitated head is placed for the entire public to see, and Tao takes Eliza to go see if it is, in fact, Joaquin.

“Was it him?” asked Tao Chi’en.

“I am free,” she replied, holding tightly to Tao’s hand.

 

I strongly recommend reading this book, if only to get a glimpse into Eliza’s life and to see if it somehow parallels yours. I found that Eliza was naive, just like me. And that we are both idealistic, and hopeful without reason. Although that sounds great, what if it’s our downfall?

As I mentioned before, I’m trying to read 1 book per month, and next on the list is Water for Elephants! If you’re interested in what I’ve read, or want to read, head on over to my Goodreads account!

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