P usually goes out one night a week to see friends and I take the opportunity to go to bed early with a cup of tea, a packet of biscuits and whatever book I’m reading at the time. I look forward to these evenings hugely. However, this week, after P had left, I sat in the living room with this book in my hand trying to convince myself to go up to bed and start reading. For pretty much the first time ever, staying put and watching ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ or ‘Sex Box’ or whatever else happened to be on the telly, just seemed to be preferable to an evening with this book. I don’t usually need to pep talk myself into reading. Where did we go wrong, Allende?
On paper I think this novel sounds like a sure thing: a young orphan escapes an oppressive life to go on the run in search of love but along the way meets some wild characters, has some adventures and eventually learns some lessons about love and freedom and what really matters in life. So far so good and I had extra reason to hope here because Allende casts the orphan as a young woman. Eliza Sommers, the adopted Chilean daughter of an English spinster, is strong willed, independent and torn between the two cultures that have dominated her upbringing. It’s set in the 1830s/40s so Eliza’s also trapped by the prevailing ideas about what it means to be a respectable young woman. This I thought was the most interesting part of the novel. Allende carefully shows the reader how precarious Eliza’s situation is and how complex the family relationships around her are. Eliza’s adopted mother, Miss Rose, is particularly fascinating: thorny, contradictory, and likeable enough that I could look past the absurd sounding episode with the German composer.
Eventually, however, the story moves away from Valparaiso. Despite Miss Rose’s best efforts, the teenage Eliza falls desperately in love with a wholly unsuitable young man and, when said young man abandons her to join the Gold Rush, Eliza follows hot on his heels. You’d think that this would be the point at which the novel reaches peak excitement level but no, this was when my interest started to wane. It seemed to me that the sudden change in pace had gone entirely in the wrong direction; everything slowed right, right down and it became painfully sluggish. I continued to read right through to the end but all I really remember of the final half of the book is a lot of words and very little action. I was bored. I stopped caring about Eliza and I didn’t really mind at all whether she found her lost love or not. I was completely indifferent. I just wanted it to end.
Looking back I think at times Allende’s writing was very engaging, especially at the beginning (although this may be just because I liked this part of the book the most). She’s particularly good at quietly setting a scene and she paints some really vivid pictures along the way. The California she evokes here is lawless, inhospitable and kind of terrifying. It’s populated by desperate gold hunters from all backgrounds and races, as well as prostitutes, bandits, Indians and opium addicts. But weirdly enough it’s all described so vividly that you can absolutely understand why it holds such appeal to Eliza. Later, though, I started to find some of Allende’s prose a little tired and her detailed descriptions wore thin when the book was so clearly losing momentum. By this time all I really wanted was for something, anything, to happen. Nothing much did happen in the end but it was all wrapped up very quickly within a few unsatisfying pages, loose ends flying in the wind.
Now that I’ve had a bit of time to think back over this novel I’m wondering whether I just didn’t choose the best Allende novel to begin with. I’ve heard such great things about Zorro and The House of the Spirits so maybe I’d have been better off with one of those, instead of plumping for the first one I found cheaply in Oxfam. The experience hasn’t completely turned me off Allende’s novels though. If anything it’s probably just made me all the keener to track one down that I might like a little more. I’ll keep my eyes open.