Daughter of Fortune

by Isabel Allende

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1445

A baby in a wicker basket is left on the doorstep of the British Import and Export Company in Valparaiso, Chile, on March 15, 1832. Rose Sommers—an unmarried sibling of Jeremy Sommers, a prominent member of the company—decides to adopt the baby, whom she finds irresistible. With the consent and support of her brother, Rose names the baby Eliza and raises her in the austere British tradition, with all the privileges and strict discipline common to a nineteenth century, upper-class British family.

As part of her Victorian upbringing, Eliza is taught the English language and learns to play the piano, two skills that will benefit her greatly in the future. Eliza’s upbringing is also very much influenced by Mama Fresia, the Native Chilean servant and cook in the Sommers household. Mama Fresia teaches Eliza the native art of cooking and exposes her to the traditions and practices of the Mapuche tribe, thereby allowing Eliza to experience both worlds and both cultures. This bicultural upbringing is advantageous to her as she grows from childhood to adolescence and as she begins her travels to a different world.

Blessed from birth with an almost photographic memory and a keen sense of smell, Eliza becomes an accomplished cook, skillfully blending the gastronomic practices of the Indian and British cultures. Eliza’s memory is prolific and almost magical: She is able to remember, with utmost clarity, lying as a baby inside the discarded box of Marseilles soap that served as her first crib. She remembers Miss Rose bending over her cradle and even recalls the color of the dress that Miss Rose was wearing at the time.

Eliza’s adolescent years are punctuated by ambivalence toward the circumstances of her birth: On one hand, Miss Rose tells her that she must have been left by wealthy British colonists because the basket in which she was found was constructed of the finest wicker and adorned by a mink coverlet, both outward signs of lavishness theretofore unimaginable in Chile. On the other hand, Mama Fresia informs her that she was found in a crate, wrapped in a man’s sweater and without a diaper. She further tells the child that had Eliza not been blessed with blond hair at her birth, Miss Rose and her brother Jeremy would not have adopted her. Eliza quickly realizes that the topic of her birth is not to be discussed in the Sommers household, and she rapidly becomes accustomed to the almost mystical and mythical nature of her origin.

As Eliza matures, her acute sense of smell is sharpened, as is her extraordinary ability to remember even the most obscure items and occurrences in her life. Eliza’s life is uncomplicated and normal, and she enjoys the process of maturation and growth, although even at this early stage her independent personality and character become apparent. At the age of sixteen, she falls desperately in love with Joaquin Andieta, a modest clerk who works for Jeremy in the British Import and Export Company. Andieta lives with his mother in abject poverty and expresses anxiety for her well-being. Eliza’s family is shocked by Eliza’s love for Andieta, whom they consider uncouth and unsuitable for her. Her independent streak is demonstrated when she has an affair with Andieta and becomes pregnant by him.

In 1849, news of the discovery of gold in California reaches South America, prompting many Chileans to migrate to California to seek their fortune. Andieta decides to join the California gold rush, hoping to make his fortune and to free himself and his mother from the cycle of poverty. A few months after his departure, Eliza, who is very much in love with him, decides to follow him to California so they can be together. She stows away on a ship and is helped in this adventurous and difficult voyage by a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi’en who befriends her and is sympathetic to her plight. For the duration of the very arduous voyage, Eliza lives hidden in the bowels of the ship and, as a consequence of this hardship, becomes ill and weak. Her frailness results in a painful miscarriage, which she survives with the help and meticulous attention of Chi’en. The doctor relates to Eliza details about his past life in China, including his brief but happy marriage to Lin. According to him, Lin was sickly and feeble and died soon after they were married. This exchange of information between Chi’en and Eliza during the voyage forms the basis for their future relationship in California.

When they arrive in San Francisco, Eliza notes that the majority of the people there are men. To adapt to her new surroundings, she pretends to be a man, dressing herself in a man’s attire. At first, she supports herself by selling homemade Chilean snacks in the streets, while Chi’en earns money by practicing his profession. Chi’en quickly becomes disillusioned with America when he observes the greed of the people and the proliferation of prostitutes in the streets of San Francisco. Having earned some money by selling food, Eliza dresses herself as a cowboy, changes her name to Elias Andieta, and, claiming to be Joaquin’s brother, sets out to find him. As she begins this odyssey, Rose and Jeremy back in Chile are stunned by her disappearance. When their brother John arrives home, Rose informs him that Eliza is in actuality his daughter from a previous random affair with a Chilean woman. Sensing that his daughter left for California, John leaves for San Francisco to find her.

Unable to locate Joaquin, Eliza decides to travel through California, relating to Tao Chi’en what she observes by means of occasional letters. She realizes that she no longer loves Joaquin and that she needs to find some means to support herself, as she is almost penniless. In a small town, she encounters a traveling band of prostitutes led by Joe Bonecrusher, and they employ her as a piano player and a cook. Since she is dressed in men’s clothing, the members of Bonecrusher’s retinue mistakenly assume that she is homosexual.

Chi’en, meanwhile, settles in San Francisco, determined to return to China as soon he has saved enough money to realize the journey. He expresses pleasure at receiving random letters from Eliza, whose company he now misses. John Sommers arrives in San Francisco and searches for his daughter. He accidentally meets Jacob Todd, Rose’s former boyfriend, who now goes by the name of Jacob Freemont and is a journalist. Freemont promises to help John find Eliza. Freemont writes and publishes newspaper articles about Joaquin Murieta, a notorious bandit whose description bears a striking resemblance to that of Joaquin Andieta.

Because he misses Eliza’s company, Chi’en decides to go look for her at Bonecrusher’s. He finds her and takes her back with him to San Francisco, where the two of them organize an association dedicated to helping and rehabilitating young Chinese prostitutes. Chi’en and Eliza’s friendship develops into a stronger bond, and they fall in love. The novel ends with the shooting death of Murieta, whose head is exhibited in San Franciso. Chi’en and Eliza go to see the bandit’s head to find out whether Murieta and Andieta are indeed the same person.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed. Isabel Allende. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. A comprehensive compilation of essays examining magical realism, female imagination, and other areas of Allende’s writing.

Cox Castellucci, Karen. Isabel Allende: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. A detailed analysis of the characters, plot, historical context, and style of Daughter of Fortune.

Feal, Rosemary G., and Yvette E. Miller. Isabel Allende Today: An Anthology of Essays. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Latin American Literary Review Press, 2002. A collection of essays examining Allende’s skills as a storyteller.

Oboler, Suzanne, and Deena J. González, eds. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the USA. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. An informative source for people beginning to study Isabel Allende and her works; discusses the author’s biography and its influences on her writings.

Rambaldo-Minero, María de la Cinta. Isabel Allende’s Writing of the Self: Trespassing the Boundaries of Fiction and Autobiography. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2003. A thorough and critical examination of the autobiographical elements in Allende’s fiction, focusing on her construction of individuality in her novels.

Zayas, Celina Correas. Isabel Allende: Life and Spirits. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press, 2002. An informative discussion of Allende’s life, focusing on literary traditions, such as Magical Realism, that have influenced her writings.

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