Set during California’s gold rush, Allende’s fifth novel eschews her earlier magical realism (The House of the Spirits) for the sprawling, earnest fare of formulaic historical fiction. Allende intertwines the fortunes of Eliza Sommers, a plucky orphan from Valparaiso, Chile, raised by wealthy British colonialists, and befriended by ship cook Tao Chi’en.
When Eliza follows her lover, a revolutionary named Joaquin, to California, she pays Tao to stow her away. Eliza then spends years searching for Joaquin while playing piano for a traveling brothel, only to fatefully reunite with Tao, now an immigrant activist. But because Allende details her plot and settings more richly than her characters’ inner lives, this derring-do saga feels somewhat spiritless. B-