I read this book around several months back, and it took me more than a month to plod through it. Not that it isn’t an interesting read, no Allende novel is ever boring. It’s just way too thick – 399 pages worth of words. Epic-like in proportion, very vast in magnitude. It spans decades of existence, and like all Allende novels, weaves stories within stories, multiple life narratives simultaneously being portrayed, giving each character (no matter how small and peripheral their roles are) a three-dimensional, lifelike, yet tenuous substance. In the writing of this review, I would naturally focus on the predominant love triangle: Joaquin Andieta – Eliza Sommers – Tao Chien. However, I would make attempts to do the other equally developed and elaborated love stories the space they deserve.
The first Allende book I have ever read is The House of the Spirits (watch the film, it made efforts to at least live up to the glory of the book). Each time I read her books, I get ensnared by the beauty of her words, the other-worldly dimension that she imbues her protagonists, the unabashed eroticism and the symbolic imagery that seems like a Hieronymus Bosch painting made into narrative. And this book is no exception. One clear illustration of this would be Miss Rose’s (Eliza Sommer’s aunt’s) dream sequence:
“Sometimes she dreamed that the walls of her room were covered with blood, that blood soaked the carpet, spattered the walls up the ceiling, and that she was sprawled in the center, naked and as wild-haired as a madwoman, giving birth to a salamander.”
Only Allende can conceptualize something as bizarre as this and remain extraordinarily glorious.
The Search for Love and Finding Home in the Most Unlikely Places
The setting was 1849: ladies in corsets, Victorian code of conduct, glorified acts of repression. There is the presence of dowries, prescribed ladylike behaviors, and rigidly superficial modes of interaction. To quote from Eliza’s upbringing which has been drummed into her since she realized that she was a girl, and was obligated to grow up a lady:
“A woman without virtue is nothing, she can never become a wife and mother, better she tie a stone around her neck and jump into the sea (page 109).”
It is when I read novels such as this that I remain grateful for living in this century, despite its being riddled with terrorist attacks, cancer, and school bombings by lost and lonely teenagers. To be less than who you are simply because it is what is required of you and expected of you by society is akin to tying a stone, indeed, around your neck and jumping into the shark-infested ocean.
This is the world that Eliza Sommers was born into. Yet she has flown free with her flights of fancy, her uncanny sense of smell and sharp memory, and her gift of invisibility (not the super-heroes kind of talent, but the surreal, Allende signature that allows her to be in a room and move with such stealth that she is not even noticed at all).
After getting the reader to fall in love with the dreamer that Eliza is, Allende takes the reader into Eliza’s life-long journey and greatest adventure, the search for her greatest love – Joaquin Andieta in California during the Gold Rush of the 19th century. This is classic Spanish/Mexican/Filipino telenovela plot: rich adopted girl falls in love with penniless idealist who can write letters like a poet (see quote below) but romances like a half-hearted distracted old professor (how very sad).
One of Joaquin Andieta’s many love letters written to Eliza:
“You are my angel and my damnation; in your presence I reach divine ecstasy and in your absence I descend to hell. What is this hold you have over me, Eliza? Do not speak to me of tomorrow or yesterday, I live only for the instant, for the today, when I can again sink into the infinite night of your dark eyes.” Pages 113-114
And like all trademark stories of voyages that have a quest-like quality to it, there is always the proverbial realization that it isn’t reaching the destination or the attainment of one’s original objective that is more important but the actual journeying itself that is more significant.
It is while the-now-disgraced Eliza searches for her blue bird of happiness that she chanced upon Tao Chien, the Chinese healer who would eventually be the actual love of her life. She traveled with Tao Chien in the bowels of a ship that would take her to California where her lover sought out his fortune, heavily pregnant (a baby that she lost anyway), with her jewels that are supposedly her dowry, hastily sewed in her lady garments.
Tao, the fourth son, took care of Eliza and gradually lost his repugnance over Eliza’s big ugly feet (of course he preferred the closeted lilies of demure Chinese women), and gradually fell in love with Eliza who pretended to be his Asian brother to escape a life of prostitution in California, despite his denial of their growing attraction towards each other.
Eliza likewise took refuge within the confines of a sort-of-carnival-cum-brothel by being their ‘male’ pianist as she obstinately searched for her love, Joaquin Andieta. It was like a fire within her, she would not rest until she found him. Regardless of the fact that the only memory she has of him and the only proof their love even existed, at all, lies in the love letters that he wrote to her. Love letters that do not even resemble what he is like when he is with her, since he continually fails to live up to the romantic promise of his lovely words in person. Occasionally, the image is all there is. And if we have the actual thing, we should merely embellish and put ornaments on it to make it more attractive and palatable to conform with our yearning for romance and poetry. And that is perhaps as good as it gets. But I digress.
Peripheral Love Tales
Apart from Eliza Sommers’ romances, there are quite a lot of other love stories on the side that are equally lyrical in its unfolding and poetic in its unraveling. One of which would be:
a) Miss Rose and her Viennese tenor lover man, Bretzner. What is interesting about Miss Rose’s romance is that Bretzner, also had his own love affair when he was young (see, it is indeed a tale within a tale, very Arabian nights-like, Scheherazade in its recitation and recounting). Bretzner is said to have been initiated into the art of loving by an older Frenchwoman who was in turn intiated at the age of thirteen by Donatien-Alphonse-Francois de Sade. Hah. The plot thickens, boils, and bubbles over with passion laced with lewdness, lust tainted with sadomasochism, lovemaking styles edged with just the tiniest ounce of violence.
b) Then there is Miss Rose and Jacob Todd, the besotted charming man with the grandiose schemes that never really come into fruition.
c) There is also Tao Chien and his wife Lin who despite her timidity, is precisely what Tao was looking for in a wife. But of course, she died in the story. Perhaps it helped that both Tao Chien and Eliza had original incomparable first loves – it made their coming together, more apt somehow. Theirs is a love affair that did not seem like infidelity to their former loves, since theirs is a love that had an entirely different world of its own – removed from their former heartaches and romances.
d) And who could forget Paulina del Valle and Feliciano Rodriguez de Sta. Cruz – the old rich marrying the new rich, despite the objections of an angry well-meaning father. Paulina del Valle is the first feminist and business matriarch of her generation. And Feliciano, the first Renaissance man despite his being unrefined, crude, and totally without class.
The charm of the story lies in Allende’s gift in making all the characters jump out of the pages, be it Joe Bonecrusher, the Mama-San of the brothel that Eliza came to work in and called her home; Babalu the Bad the tender-hearted Giant; and the many soiled doves that the healer Tao Chien saved from perdition. It is a privilege to hear their life narratives and be moved by who Allende made them out to be.