I loved the story in this book but I didn't care for the writing style. Isabel Allende is a former journalist and, like most journalists, she tells her stories rather than dramatizing them in scenes. There is very little dialogue in the book because of this, just Allende "telling" us the story of the del Valle family through the "voice" of her narrator, Aurora del Valle.
The book takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown, in Peru and mostly, in Chile, something I really enjoyed. The book actually begins before Aurora's birth, though it is Aurora who tells the story, many years later, from Chile. As in most of Allende's books, women dominate. Women are the strong figures, the ones who matter, the ones who take center stage. The men, for the most part, just seem to hover at the periphery. In PORTRAIT IN SEPIA, however, one man is very fully drawn...Aurora's maternal grandfather, Tao Chi'en, and he is a fascinating and likable figure.
PORTRAIT IN SEPIA encompasses a large cast of characters and is, in many ways, a family novel. Tao Chi'en and his wife, Eliza Sommers, who live in Chinatown, have a daughter, Lynn, a gorgeous woman who has an affair with Matias del Valle. When Lynn becomes pregnant, Matias, who doesn't have his sights set on fatherhood, leaves and Lynn dies in childbirth. Lynn's daughter, Aurora, is raised for a short time by Tao Chi'en and Eliza, but circumstances force Eliza to give Aurora to her paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle.
Paulina del Valle is a larger-than-life character. She's rich, she's eccentric, she ostentatious, she's irreverent. She lives like a man at a time when it was greatly frowned upon for a woman to live like a man, but...Paulina lives like a man better than most men do. When her fortune begins to run low, Paulina gathers up her butler (who becomes more than a butler) and five-year-old Aurora and heads for Santiago where money goes a lot further.
There, we learn more about Aurora's father, Matias, her uncle Severo and his cousin, Nivea. When Aurora arrives in Chile, she is only five years old. When she is narrating her story, she is three decades older and much has happened. Allende has filled PORTRAIT IN SEPIA with larger-than-life themes...love, lust, betrayal, lies, family loyalty...but somehow they don't come off larger-than-life; they come off as being very intimate. I think part of the problem for me was the way Allende chose to tell her story...and I mean "telling" rather than "showing." This gave a very "muted" tone to the book, which tied in well with the title but definitely left something lacking. I found it very difficult to get emotionally involved with the characters. I often felt as though I were reading a newspaper article rather than a novel.
I did love the fact that Chile, itself, often took center stage in this book. Chile is a fascinating place and most of Allende's best writing is done when describing her native country. Don't expect a book like those of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though, simply because most of PORTRAIT IN SEPIA is set in South America. There is no magic realism in this book and Chile is a very different place than is Colombia. You won't find the hot, steamy, melancholy jungles of Garcia Marquez here. Instead, Chile is a land of volcanoes and snowy mountaintops, forests and lakes. It's cool more than it's hot. But it's fascinating and the look at Chilean history Allende gives us is just as fascinating as is the story of the del Valle family and Tao Chi'en. Maybe more.
Most of the time, I enjoyed reading PORTRAIT IN SEPIA. I did find all the "telling" to be a bit tiresome and ponderous, though, and I wish Allende would learn to dramatize her stories in scenes rather than simply relating them to us in such a journalistic, factual manner.
I would recommend PORTRAIT IN SEPIA to fans of Allende without hesitation. I think others are going to be a bit disappointed in the book. Don't expect anything like HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS, though. This a very different sort of book and one that is much more "down-to-earth."