Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende
I still remember when everyone seemed to be reading this book. My mom read it, my best friend at the time read it; basically, everyone was talking about Daughter of Fortune. Naturally, being a bit of a book snob, I couldn't possibly read it as a result - after all, what does the public know? And wasn't it part of Oprah's Book Club? Nope, absolutely refused to read something that mainstream. This was before discovering that some of my favorite books and authors have somehow ended up on Oprah's Book Club at one point or another. Apparently she has good taste in novels, but unfortunately she also has a penchant for the self help section (I recently turned the TV on to find that Oprah had a life coach as her guest - the TV obviously didn't stay on long).
I've gotten over my snobbishness somewhat, and I liked Ines of My Soul, so this one was next (also, I remember hearing that the novel talked about the "two hundred twenty two positions of love", so I can't say I was completely uninterested).
The two main characters are Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en. Due to different life turns and circumstances, both find themselves in San Francisco, far away from their home countries, at the time of the Gold Rush. Through their eyes, Allende explores the rough and tumble world of a newly emerging state, and shows what kind of strange alliances can form on the frontier (such as Quakers and prostitutes to name just one). At the beginning of the novel, Eliza, love-stricken and pregnant, follows a man to California. Her search introduces her to all types of different people and situations, and also sees her mature into a much stronger, independent woman. Tao Chi'en, a Chinese physician, ends up settling in San Francisco's Chinatown and plays a role in fighting the slave trafficking business. Despite their different backgrounds, the two develop a close bond, and become each other's family.
There are a variety of other colorful characters in the novel, and several strong women, such as Paulina del Valle, who defies her father and escapes from a convent to marry, has a great natural sense of business and a rather equal marriage. While Eliza spends much of the novel trying to find her old lover, by the end, it has become less about finding him and spending her life with him as much as just her wanting to close a chapter in her life. As she gets older, she romanticizes him less, and is able to see their relationship and her feelings in a much more rational light.
The novel only spans about ten years, though it hints at Eliza having a long future. I liked that - when the novel closes, Eliza is twenty and still has the rest of her life ahead of her. It is a very cheerful and hopeful ending in that way. The Space Between Us, for example, ended with Bhima having to start over at an age when she shouldn't have to; even though she was at peace with what happened, it was a rather bittersweet ending.