Portrait in Sepia, by Isabel Allende, Read by Blair Brown, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001
I discovered what to me is the highest praise I can bestow on an audiobook: while listening to this novel there were large stretches where I both forgot to take notes and where I was completely stunned to realize I had reached the end of yet another disc. There are books like the Left Behind dross in which I can’t take notes fast enough, the writing is so poorly done, the plotting so ludicrously hallucinated, and the characters so thinly pissed onto the page. And there are books so dull, I have to take notes to keep myself interested in listening to one damn minute more of it. And then there are works of real beauty like Isabel Allende’s Portrait in Sepia.
I had avoided reading this book for a long time, thinking it was going to be another sensitive woman’s novel about family and its importance and relationships between the generations and yak yak yak, you’ve read it all before. Honestly. I thought that. Maybe it was the description on the box (“…a tale that explores the complexity of passion, the power of memory, and a woman’s emerging self.”). Maybe it was the cover art with the sepia tinted photograph of the earnestly soulful attractive woman in a lace dress. Maybe it was the reader, über-honky Blair Brown from the cornball 80’s television series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.
Whatever. There was something about the book’s packaging that filled me with dread and concern. Never did old proverbs about judging based on covers apply more completely and entirely.
One particular nicety of the novel is that Allende lets us know early on that she intends to wander from her main point, that she is determined to strike out on whatever side road catches her fancy, and tells us that if she seems to lose the thread of her tale, all we need to do is simply wait a few pages and she'll have it back. I like that refreshingly honest approach to a meandering tale. Too many novelists don't know what's germane to their book and spend an intolerable amount of time describing things that don't set mood, describe character, elucidate plot, or embroider any actual theme. They just get lost in enjoying their adjectival adventures, leaving the readers to suffer their flights of self-indulgent caprice, oblivious to what they are inflicting on us. That Allende comes clean in the beginning regarding her designs allowed me to sit back and regard this wandering journey with a much more lenient ear.
And the story told is a complex one, so Allende is doing more than warning you not to mind the drift. She is preparing you to work to keep up with her, and she is asking you to indulge her with what far too many novelists take for granted — trust. Trust that she will make things right, that she will entertain as she broadens your mind, that she will present an enchanting world, a different world, a world you’ve not seen or only glimpsed before.
And so, when the present day story being narrated by a nameless woman goes off on what seem a lengthy tangent about her uncle Matias who was so fascinated by murders that he would visit crime scenes with a local journalist before retiring to his garret to paint ghoulish and macabre oils, it isn't a disagreeable time. We visit San Francisco's Chinatown opium dens, pastry shops, and homes, as well as Turkish baths and saloons and brothels. We have no idea where this story is going or if it has any point other than filling in a portrait of one of many family members, and we don't care. We are introduced to the sprawling del Valle family from and in Chile, and we are led past the other families in various towns and cities whose lives intersect with the del Valle’s.
The importance of the uncle becomes all too clear before that tangent is brought back to present day in the novel’s second part, only for us to regress to the past again, where the narrator tells of her childhood. We are formally introduced to her, first by her Chinese name Lai Ming then her Spanish Aurora del Valle. If that sounds confusing, it isn’t, and Allende patterns it all out with such straightforwardness that what in other hands might have been a confused hodge-podge here seems reasonable, natural, inevitable. What’s even more surprising is that the book is a sequel, though there is no necessity to read the first book to understand any of Portrait.
Hispanic family sagas are often difficult books to listen to as they are invariably about a large number of people, multigenerational, filled with names high in the glissando of Spanish cognomens. It is a lengthy history, starting in 1862, and is set in various communities both in the northern and southern hemispheres, yet Portrait in Sepia never falters, never devolves into baroque stage settings wherein characters are rushed on to stage simply for the spectacle of a cast of thousands. At least it never feels that way, yet by book’s end, if you do a headcount you find two hands and feet aren’t enough for all we are introduced to.
What sets this kind of storytelling apart is Allende’s enviable knack for colorful characters who have the heft and depth of fully thought out people, rather than just cardboard cutouts dressed in peacock finery for distinction. The Irish courtesan Amanda Lowell with her boa constrictor, her notched bedposts, and her public humiliation of then friendship with Aurora’s grandmother, the titanically fascinating Paulina del Valle, is a case in point. Likewise, Paulina, who bestrides the novel, a colossus of the imagination. By painting her portraits so true to life, by making her characters so humanly flawed, Allende makes you sympathize even with those who you also revile at times. It is a lovely piece of writing in which you can hate Paulina when she demands the infant Aurora from her maternal grandmother, Eliza Sommers, with aristocratic haughtiness, then immediately weep with her as she leaves, frustrated in her desires, heartbroken.
In the book’s third part, Aurora comes into her own, moving from the recollections of childhood to the active participation of adulthood. It is Aurora’s own burgeoning skill as a photographer that lends the book its title, and not some authorial sentimentality in tinting the tale. And yet, Aurora without Paulina, who hovers in the background while her granddaughter marries and moves to Chile’s most southerly parts, is somehow for being the focus, less interesting. As a narrator, she remains somewhat still behind the camera, an observer richly cataloging the world while avoiding scrutiny herself. It is barely a flaw, and a minor one if you can even count it. With the exit of Paulina, Eliza returns to the story opening Aurora’s forgotten past to her, an immeasurable sadness closing the book.
The reader, Blair Brown, began her reading with a slightly stuffy sound to her voice as though she was on antihistamines. While I first considered her the epitome of Poundcake Whitey, and doubted the producer’s choice of tapping her to read this vibrant novel of Spanish and American lineages filled as it is with South Americans, Slavs, Europeans, mestizos, Asians, and other multiracial characters, I came to lose sight of that. After a while, you forget this fact, and Brown has a surprising facility for understated, and thus unfeigned sounding, accents from British to Chilean to Irish. She reads in a stately pacing and is thus a perfect vehicle to deliver Allende beautifully.