Memory and Mourning
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Portrait in Sepia picks up where Daughter of Fortune left off with Eliza Sommers accepting the apothecary, Tao Chi’en, as her husband after a long quest to find her childhood sweetheart who is lost forever. If Daughter of Fortune is all about the chances taken in youth, Portrait in Sepia is far more regretful manner even while it is told from the point of view of a youthful narrator: Eliza Sommer’s grand-daughter, Aurora del Valle. The narrative of the book revolves around loss, as it maps out Aurora’s mourning for her beautiful dead mother and her missing grandparents, Eliza and Tao, all lost when she was an infant. Similarly, her real father, Matias de Santa Cruz is missing and her adopted father Severo del Valle gives her name and an inheritance but no real relationship. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about the gifts in shrugging off family and belonging, Portrait in Sepia considers the terrible loss when family life is snatched away too soon.
The one anchoring force in Aurora’s life is Paulina de Valle, mother of her real father and aunt to her adopted father, who also appeared as the shrewd businesswoman of Daughter of Fortune. It is Paulina who must take up the task of bringing Aurora up, initially in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of nineteenth century California and later in Chile against a magnificent backdrop of political machinations and war. Cloistered from the world through her grandmother’s riches, Aurora tells the story of this period in history through her own interpretation of the events in the lives of others. For example the description of Severo del Valle’s experience of the War of the Pacific is grotesque, frenzied and gut-wrenching. This capturing of others and their stories encompasses the significance of the title, Portrait in Sepia, which also refers to Aurora’s interest in photography which acts for her as a way of remembering and preserving experience. Aurora is a memory keeper and an inheritor of the family history, which, as she states that she will never have children, stops with her. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about moving outwards to find new chances and new opportunities for life and freedom, Portrait in Sepia is a movement towards home, preservation and history. The novel is also an interesting companion to The House of the Spirits and some of the characters from that book, such as Nivea (Clara’s mother), appear as youthful versions of themselves to remind us of the next stage in Chile’s history. The heroine of The House of the Spirits, Alba, has much in common with Aurora, and they seem to exist as parallel versions of a particular heroine, since both of their names refer to the dawn. Aurora is almost a prototype for Alba, although Aurora has less freedom and Alba experiences more suffering.