Allende begins her novel by observing that Eliza Sommers, her heroine, has “many memories, both real and illusory,” and that Eliza recalls her life with “an astrologer’s poetic vagueness.” As a result, Allende’s novel, ostensibly told from an omniscient point of view, is best seen as a memory which incorporates magic, poetic license, and illusion—all ingredients of the “magic realism” of South American writers. Eliza also has culinary talents, a trait she shares with the heroine of Mexican Laura Esquivel’s Como agua para chocolate (1990; Like Water for Chocolate, 1992), though the kitchen plays a lesser role than it did in Allende’sAfrodita: Cuentos, recetas, y otros afrodisiacos (1997; Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, 1998).
Eliza develops her talents at the home of the Sommers family, who found her abandoned on their doorstep. Although Rose Sommers knows Eliza is her brother John’s illegitimate child, she does not tell her other brother Jeremy. Since she is Eliza’s real aunt, Rose gives Eliza all the advantages the upper-class British colony in Chile can provide. Because she has had an ill- fated affair with a married Viennese tenor, Rose also knows the power and danger of young love and strictly oversees Eliza’s activities. Eliza, however, falls in love with Joaquín Andieta, a poor young man who returns her passion, but not her commitment. He steals some money and leaves for the California gold rush; after discovering that she is pregnant, she leaves on the Liberty, an appropriately named ship since she is leaving the rigid, patriarchal, class-conscious British colony. Allende parallels the Eliza/Joaquín relationship with one between the nouveau-riche Feliciano Rodríquez de Santa Cruz and the aristocratic Paulina del Valle. The latter relationship, despite the difference in class, becomes a successful marriage only because Feliciano has the financial resources to stage an elopement; Paulina’s father, facing public humiliation, agrees to a “real” marriage.
While these affairs are occurring, Rose has developed some romantic entanglements of her own. Although she rejects Jacob Todd’s advances, they remain friends, and she discovers that Michael Steward, whom she had intended for Eliza’s husband, is actually in love with her, despite the disparity in years. Rose’s suitors and the flashback chapter detailing her affair with the Viennese tenor prepare the reader for the revelation that she is the author of best-selling pornographic novels.
Meanwhile, Eliza secures the assistance of Tao Chi’en, a Chinese physician whose past is described in a flashback chapter. He is the cook on the Liberty, and he cares for her when she has a miscarriage. Tao, which means the “way” or “harmony,” and Eliza, who dresses as a young man, live together in California, but since both have their obsessions (his, his dead wife, Lin; hers, Joaquín) they are not sexually intimate. Eliza continues her search for Joaquín, and Tao, who has discovered the plight of Chinese slaves in the lucrative sex industry run by Ah Toy, manages to save some of them from certain death. This part of the novel switches the focus from romance to social criticism, as Allende exposes the sexual exploitation and racial prejudice that lie beneath the glitter of the gold rush. There is widespread discrimination against Hispanics, especially Chileans, and Jacob Freemont (formerly Jacob Todd) writes in his newspaper column, “Gold has brought out the worst of the American character: greed and violence.” His comment sounds like a twentieth century revisionist historian condemning America in politically correct fashion.
Freemont’s writing about Joaquín Murieta, who may or may not be Joaquín Andieta, also has a revisionist ring. The reader sees Freemont “constructing—with some truths and a mountain of lies, the life—or the legend—of Joaquín Murieta.” This kind of deconstruction of Western legends is also in vogue, as witnessed by Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven(1992), a film that...
(The entire section is 1666 words.)