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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1835

Isabel Allende is a controversial and outspoken writer, whose stories blend history and fiction in a breathless rushing narrative of Chilean life. Her true forte is the depiction of women in male regimes who often try invisibly to change the course of events, and whose power is very different in nature from men’s power. Born in Peru, Isabel Allende is the niece of Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was assassinated in a bloody coup in 1973. Not long after that, the novelist began to publish essays, memoirs, stories, and plays. “I think I have divided my life [into] before that day and after that day,” she once told an interviewer. Many of her novels and stories introduce women of privilege who are sheltered from life by the patriarchal structure, but then circumstances destroy the shelter and force the women to take part in a violent culture and do their best to change it.

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Allende’s work has been subject to critical attention for its Magical Realism, and also for the use she makes of history. Herself part of Chilean history and witness to much of the bloody revolutionary activity, she gives the political history human faces. Her style is always polyvocal, polyvalent. Allende is famous for the epic family history which connects generations with formative historical events. The families are in some way always matriarchal despite the fact that men rule the outside world with iron fist. The lineage she traces is matriarchal, mystical, intuitive power passing from grandmother to mother to daughter. There is a particular brand of feminism in much of her work, as men and women are definitely opposites, and the women are almost always morally superior. Yet Allende’s contexts make it clear that the gender roles are written for the main characters by the society they inhabit and they do not choose their destinies.

Magical Realism, usually associated with South American writers, introduces fantastic elements into a realistic narrative as though they were just part of the landscape; often there is a combination of fairy-tale elements and Catholicism. In Allende’s stories, the fantastic takes the form of clairvoyance and paranormal events; she might claim that she is not using Magical Realism at all but only describing the often overlooked or misunderstood qualities that women, especially women in extreme circumstances, actually possess.

Because her stories are rooted in Chilean history—even when they take place far from Chile—they tend to be violent, bloody, and passionate. The political events themselves, massacres and coups d’état and assassinations, tend to follow lengthy, leisurely explorations of the lives of those they affect, and to come as a surprise, bringing to the reader the reminder that this is myth interwoven with history, and that there is a randomness that is always at play in human events.

Like Allende’s other stories, Portrait in Sepia is expansive narrative that covers generations and gives a vivid sense of woman’s place in a male society which has little understanding for the things of women. This story takes up the characters of her 1999 novel Daughter of Fortune. The main character of Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers, here is a secondary personage as the grandmother of Aurora del Valle, whom she raises until the age of five and then parts from completely, leaving her in the care of Paulina del Valle. The women portrayed in this narrative are also related to the female characters in The House of the Spirits, which extends later in time and takes place in Chile; Aurora is a contemporary of and related to Clara del Valle, one of the main characters in The House of the Spirits. Allende has referred to the three novels as a trilogy, but they are so only in the sense of having some overlapping characters and sharing as theme the exploration of women’s roles and potential within a society officially run by men and inimical to women’s values of stability, family, and love. The novels are separate; they were not written in chronological sequence and do not depend on each other.

Aurora del Valle, the narrator and protagonist of Portrait in Sepia, begins by telling of her birth in San Francisco, “a man’s city,” in 1880. She is now at a kind of plateau in her life, her lover having betrayed her and she herself not knowing where to go next. Unable to remember anything about the first five years of her life, she decides to investigate her own past, knowing that she cannot participate fully in a relationship without some sense of who she is.

Allende’s storytelling style is idiosyncratic and vitally effective. There is always an element of suspense, and there is always the awareness of a tale being told, a hint of once-upon-a-time. If the major action is left to history, the more domestic events are narrated in a breathless rush that pulls all of history into the life of one woman, one child. Just when the reader gets used to the characters, they change; the focus passes on from one generation to the next or from one branch of the family to another. Portrait in Sepia begins with the birth scene of the narrator, and it is a rough thrust into a troubled world:

I came into the world one Tuesday in the autumn of 1880, in San Francisco, in the home of my maternal grandparents. While inside that labyrinthine wood house my mother panted and pushed, her valiant heart and desperate bones laboring to find a way out to me, the savage life of the Chinese quarter was seething outside, with its unforgettable aroma of exotic food, its deafening torrent of shouted dialects . . .

Aurora—symbolically named like all Allende’s female major characters—pulls at the tag ends of her childhood to find the cause of her nightmares and the reason she cannot remember anything about her early life, and in doing this, she places herself in history. A photographer, she uses photographs as evidence as well as for self-definition. She interviews family members and uses documentary evidence to find out about a past that had by family agreement been erased, and finds out the specifics of her mother’s death, her grandfather’s death, and the series of events that took her away from her maternal grandparents, the Sommers, to be raised by Paulina del Valle who, when she was widowed, took her granddaughter to grow up in Chile. Here Aurora was protected by her eccentric grandmother from the oppression that stifled most women in this patriarchal society:

In Santiago, intellectuals gathered in cafes and clubs, and only men were included, based on the belief that women were better off stirring the soup than writing verses. My grandmother’s initiative in including female artists in her salon was a novelty that bordered on the immoral.

The granddaughter of two idiosyncratic women who refused to accept society’s dictates, Aurora has a good grounding for her own move toward independence.

Much of the novel is simply Aurora’s richly detailed account of her memories of growing up, and of the characters and activities of the other major women in her life, especially Paulina del Valle. The men tend to be present only in shadow form, although their activities do much to advance the story by providing obstacles to the women. The implication is that men live entirely in a world of action, and women, of passionate being. Even when their natures and external events cause them to take part in the men’s world, the women’s passions are what drive them and what come first. When Aurora is betrayed by her lover, she is frozen, and cannot be unfrozen until her whole passionate being is unveiled to her. Another characteristic of the women’s lives is their cyclic nature, as events for them seem always to go in circles rather than in linear progression. People and things left behind resurface; events are re-experienced. A third element that distinguishes the women is their intuitive knowledge, which sometimes occurs in the form of clairvoyance, sometimes in understanding of others’ feelings, and which tends to be represented by the houses in which they live: structures that have been built onto and changed around at whim, and are more comforting than any conventional home. All in all, the women’s world that Allende presents is consistent and fascinating.

What Aurora finds out is horrifying, but it does allow her to know her place in the world, where she comes from and what kind of future is open to her. The birth described in the opening paragraph is followed by the ending of a second birth, of awareness and knowledge, and now Aurora is complete. The epilogue is the narrator’s meditation on time, memory, photographs, reality, and fiction. Words and photographs become evidence of existence in the fiction that is memory:

Through photography and the written word I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evanesce, to untangle the confusion of my past. Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing.

The revelations of the ending, when Aurora finally gets back in touch with her maternal grandmother and is told the truth, are a bit disappointing, which is the case sometimes with Allende: Such breathless action, it seems, could only end in an apocalypse that would lead to a new world order, and naturally this does not always happen. What Aurora finds out about her grandfather’s death seems anticlimactic. Moreover, the reader might well think that a conspiracy of silence on the part of the family was misplaced—such intuitive, intelligent women as Eliza and Paulina might have seen that to allow their granddaughter to experience displacement and nightmares could be more damaging than telling her the truth. Then, too, the events of Chilean history play a smaller part here than in some of her other works, and her discussion of the social problems in San Francisco that led to her grandfather’s death is less incisive than her perspective on Chilean history. Nevertheless, the characters are richly portrayed and the way in which the personal interacts with the political is insightfully described. The action and passion in an Allende novel sweeps the reader into a colorful and vital world that it is hard to envision, from any distance, as a sepia portrait, though the image captures well the freezing effect of taking stills of lives so fast-moving they seem a blur. Allende’s popularity is due in part to the appeal she has for different kinds of readers: This is a bodice-ripper as well as a novel of political and social analysis. Portrait in Sepia is also a persuasive argument for essentialist feminism, as it is the women who keep the society from self-destruction.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (September 1, 2001): 3.

Library Journal 126 (October 15, 2001): 105.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (November 4, 2001): 32.

Publishers Weekly 248 (July 16, 2001): 164.

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