Portrait in Sepia (Spanish: Retrato en Sepia) is a romantic historical fiction novel by the Chilean author Isabel Allende. It was first published in 2000. It is a continuation of the story from Allende's earlier novel Daughter of Fortune.
The novel takes place in the 19th century in San Francisco, Chile and Europe. The narrative centers on the Sommers and Del Valle families and, in particular, on the character of Aurora del Valle. The novel is divided into three parts, which cover different phases in Aurora del Valle's life, and an epilogue. Portrait in Sepia follows Aurora through childhood, describes how she becomes a photographer, marries, has an affair and divorces.
Portrait in Sepia tells the second part of the story of the Sommers family. The protagonist is Aurora del Valle, also known by the Chinese name Lai Ming. Aurora is the granddaughter of Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en and the illegitimate daughter of Lynn Sommers and Matías Rodríguez de Santa Cruz ( the son of Paulina del Valle and Feliciano Rodríguez de Santa Cruz). Aurora has no memory of her first five years of life. She has recurring nightmares of men in black pyjamas looming around her, and losing her grip on the hand of someone beloved.
Aurora's mother died while giving birth to her in Chinatown, San Francisco. Her biological father never acknowledged he had a bastard child until the end of his life, while he was dying a slow and agonizing death from syphilis. After the death of Lynn Sommers, Aurora's maternal grandparents raise her until the death of Tao Chi'en. After his death, Eliza asks Paulina del Valle to look afte Aurora while she goes to China to bury her husband. Paulina makes Eliza agree to cut all contact with Aurora so that she will not get too attached to the girl and have her taken away later on in life. Paulina tries to hide Aurora's true origins. Nevertheless, when Aurora talks to her real father, Matías, he tells the truth about her past.
In the first part of the novel, the writer also describes the Pacific War in which Severo del Valle is involved as a soldier. The descriptions of the war are quite horrific, for example, there is a scene in which Severo del Valle loses his leg due to gangrene.
The second part of the novel is about the transition of Aurora to adulthood. She learns to be a photographer and she becomes an expert artist in that field. The family moves from San Francisco to Chile. Frederick Williams becomes Paulina's husband. Everybody who meets Frederick in Chile see him as a true English lord, but nobody knows that his origins are not noble, according to himself. Allende also describes a civil war which affects the family directly and the way Paulina del Valle endlessly creates new businesses, such as selling French wine and cheese in Chile. the Del Valle family then travel to Europe, where Paulina has to go for an operation on a tumor. The operation is successful and Paulina becomes healthy and strong once more. It is noticeable that she is more than 70 years old but does not show signs of being tired, ill or soft; her strong will controls her body and she can continues to be the matriarch who rules the family.
The third part of the novel is where Aurora grows up the most, becoming a photographer, marrying Diego Domínguez and eventually leaving him. She takes a lover, Dr. Ivan Radovic, and their relationship is explained more fully in the epilogue.
In the end, the mystery of Tao Chi'en's death is revealed.
Aurora del Valle
Paulina del Valle
She is Aurora's grandmother. She is perhaps the most important character in the story after Aurora herself. Paulina has a very strong personality; not even her husband can control her, she always does whatever she wants. She is an expert in businesses and increases her fortune through several different companies. She adopts Aurora when Eliza Sommers leaves the United States for China when Tao Chi'en dies. Paulina raises her granddaughter as a princess; Aurora does not even have to go to school and she does not have to work to live, in part because the Del Valle family is very rich. Paulina likes to impress everyone around her, spending money and having a luxurious house in Chile. She is a feminist and helps poor women through charitable foundations.
He is the second husband of Paulina. He comes from England and is a typical British person, according to Aurora's description. He is an intelligent, silent person who He helps the family in many ways. This character and that of Tao Chi'en offer a contrast to the other unworthy characters like Matías del Valle. Frederick Williams is shown as the personification of duty and calm.
He is Aurora's grandfather. He is a very wise man who "...acts like God, a friend and a father" for Aurora, in Eliza Sommers words. He is very important in Aurora's infancy, to the point that the fact that she forgets her first five years of life could have to do with Tao Chi'en's sudden death.
Matías del Valle
He is the father of Aurora. He abandoned her mother, Lynn Sommers, because he never loved her, he just wanted to use her, in a sexual manner and as part of a bet. Thus, Matías never acted as Aurora's father. Although he told his mother that he was dying from arthritis, he really died of syphilis due to his hedonistic way of life.
Severo del Valle
Cousin of Matías, he marries Aurora's mother and thus becomes Aurora's stepfather. It is only when she is a teenager that she discovers the truth about her past, when Matías tells the truth that Paulina always tried to hide.
Major themes in the novel are historical descriptions of two wars and the role of women in Chile. The novel contains many feminist view points, thoughts that Isabel Allende herself has acknowledged she shares. Paulina del Valle can be considered to beseen the ultimate feminist, a woman who rules in a world of men. She helps poor women using all her wealth through charitable organizations. Everybody obeys her, even her two husbands, and she is the matriarch who rules the family. Her forceful character contrasts sharply with the calm Frederick Williams.
War and history are important in this novel; Allende has confessed she always makes thorough research on history for her novels to be accurate. Her description of a century that she has not lived through, the 19th century is very striking. She also describes the ultra conservative characteristics of Chilean society at that time.
Another important theme is love, although it only features in the third part of the novel. Unlike many women novelists, Allende does not focus on love very much and her description of it lacks a certain lyricism and romanticism.