52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
The title says it all,
This review is from: Portrait in Sepia: A Novel (Hardcover)
I read this book at an extremely leisurely pace: a few pages at a time, over the course of weeks. Strangely enough, Allende's novel seems perfect for this kind of catch-as-catch-can type of reading. It doesn't have the narrative drive of a book you can't put down, but it has the characters and history to keep you returning.
In many ways, this novel is less of a story than a portrait of characters that have largely appeared elsewhere in her fiction, although it's not necessary to have read these other books. The emphasis is unequivocably on the del Valles, with Paulina del Valle the most memorable. Paulina is the glue that holds everything together. Other characters, equally well drawn, appear strongly in some sections, then vanish into the background, thus shifting the attention back to Paulina. Not surprisingly, the most elusive character is the narrator, Aurora, who is also the photographer, both literally and metaphorically. The story is filtered through her lens - her experience, perceptions, and ideas.
The "sepia" part of the title refers to the historical/nostalgic atmosphere of the novel. Allende takes her characters through the San Francisco of Gold Rush times and through turbulent times in Chile during war and the rise of women's rights. Here, everything is a memory.
The plot? The novel traces Aurora del Valle's life, from the times leading up to her conception to the moment when, as an adult, she is given back the crucial memory that has subconsciously defined her. You won't find a single driving conflict here; even Aurora's perplexity about her mysterious dream surfaces only now and then. Instead, you will find a family album, complete with the syphilitic uncle, the feminist aunt who is always pregnant, the gluttonous and proud matriarch, and the butler rumored to be a nobleman who scandalously marries into the family.
Allende writes with confidence and skill, sometimes overdoing the prose but quickly righting herself. Her circuitous approach to this story - attacking different moments and events from various directions, shifting in and out of times, mixing bits of stories from several characters - makes this novel one to sit with for a while. Fans of her early fiction will be disappointed about the lack of magic realism, but her hand with detail and characterization remains as steady as always.
I recommend this novel for Allende fans and readers of character-driven fiction. Readers who expect a driving narrative, however, will find this work lacking.