[(review date November-December 2001) In the review that follows, Graham presents a negative assessment of A Portrait in Sepia, criticizing such elements as its lack of suspense, its inferiority to both The House of the Spirits and Daughter of Fortune, and its formulaic structure, which relies on subjects already fictionalized by the author.]
On the first page of Isabel Allende's latest novel, narrator Aurora del Valle warns the reader: "This is a long story, and it begins before my birth; it requires patience in the telling and even more in the listening. If I lose the thread along the way, don't despair, because you can count on picking it up a few pages further on." The promised "few pages" expand to nearly 100, though, before Aurora finally tells of her birth--marked by the death of her mother, Lynn Sommers, and abandonment by her father, Matías del Valle.
Aurora's maternal grandparents, Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en, care for her in San Francisco until the grandfather is murdered. From the age of five she is raised in Chile by her widowed paternal grandmother, the indomitable businesswoman Paulina del Valle, who is determined to keep her from discovering her complicated origins. Meanwhile, Aurora is haunted by a recurring nightmare that has her holding the hand of someone whose face she cannot see when they are menaced by children dressed in black pajamas, a pool of blood gathers on the ground, and she loses the grip of that friendly hand.
No one can or will explain those unsettling images that often leave Aurora in paralyzing fear. But she suspects they are somehow linked to her history, so uncovering her mysterious past becomes a vital mission.
Allende has made the crucial mistake, however, of allowing her narrator to reveal in the first third of the novel too much of what she will eventually discover. Consequently, when Aurora spends the next 200 pages searching for the details of her past, it is difficult to remain sufficiently engaged by the quest because you already know the outcome. Allende does manage to leave until the end the explanation for her nightmares, but attentive readers will not be surprised by it either, particularly if they are familiar with the other parts of what the publisher says is a trilogy.
In terms of the period covered, Portrait in Sepia...