Daughter of Fortune
First sentence: Everyone is born with some special talent, and Eliza Sommers discovered early on that she had two: a good sense of smell and a good memory.
Reflections: Daughter of Fortune is about Eliza Sommers, an orphan raised in Valparaiso, Chile in the mid-1800s, by an English spinster who lives with her brother. At first Eliza appears to be a high society lady in training, but we suddenly find her stowing away on a ship to California in search of her first love, a man named Joaquin. She arrives in California during the gold rush and has to make her way on her own. This alone makes pretty interesting reading, but Allende enriches the main plot through her outstanding development of the other characters in Eliza's life: her adoptive mother Rose; Rose's brother Jeremy, a minister; her other brother John, a steamship captain; and Tao Chien, a Chinese cook from John's ship. By the time Eliza strikes out for California we know a great deal about the life story of all these characters and the way their lives intersect is one of the more interesting aspects of the plot.
Allende is also adept at social commentary, exposing the dark side of this period in history by focusing on the racism demonstrated by Americans against the Chinese, Chilean, Mexican, and Native American people. She vividly describes the American takeover of land once owned by Mexicans and Native Americans, and the Chinese slave trade that forced young girls into brothels where many did not survive. These are subjects generally not covered in the history books and, while this is a work of fiction, it nevertheless provides a perspective that makes you reflect on the "dark side" that exists at every point in the history of humankind.
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