Portrait in Sepia is actually the middle volume of a trilogy, between Daughter of Fortune and House of the Spirits. I read House of the Spirits long before I started this blog, so it is not among my musings here, and have not read Daughter of Fortune. But never fear, this is a stand alone novel, you don’t need the first volume at all.
It is the story of a young woman, daughter of a beautiful young girl who dies in childbirth, granddaughter of a Chilean woman and a Chinese man, very unusual in the later part of the 19th century in San Francisco, and of the neer-do-well son of a very wealthy Chilean couple, also living in San Francisco. The son refuses to acknowledge his paternity, and a male cousin formally adopts her so she will have a name, and still belong to the Del Valle family.
There is a great deal about grandmother Paulina Del Valle, an obese but astute woman who has such a head for business that the family’s money soon becomes the family’s great wealth, and they have a huge mansion in S.F. where she dominates the social scene.
The little girl, Aurora (Lai Ming) is brought up by her Chilean grandmother and Chinese grandfather until age five, when the grandfather is murdered by the tangs, the wife wants to take his body back to Hong Kong for burial, so the grandmother turns the child over to the wealth grandmother. At some point, they return to Chile, to Santiago, a back water compared to San Francisco, but is the biggest most progressive city in Chile. There, Paulina sets up shop again as the big cheese, the granddaughter Aurora falls in love with a handsome son of a ranching family several days travel from Santiago, where they have vast landholdings that had been in the family for centuries. The marriage fails, because the husband has been in love for years with the wife of his brother. The granddaughters perfects her craft of photography, and when she learns her grandmother Paulina is close to death, travels to Santiago and never returns to her husband.
The story covers the Chilean civil war, a couple of them, actually, and runs from 1862 to 1910, and is told in the form of a memoir by Aurora. The title refers to her feeling that although family members and events from early in her life are clearly outlined in the black and white photos, and the later ones in the color she begins to use in her film, a lot of her family history is not clear, and appears more as a portrait in sepia.
A fine story, as are all Allende’s books.
Oh, did I mention the translator? It is Magda Bogin. Allende writes in Spanish, being a native born Chilean.