DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE

By Isabel Allende

HarperCollins. 399 pp. $26

In the past decade or so, we've seen several fine writers who began their novelistic careers with closely observed personal narratives, then widened their focus to encompass novels on a grander and more historic scale. Australia's Tim Winton and Peter Carey have successfully followed this paradigm; so has Ireland's Roddy Doyle. (Admittedly, sometimes the plan doesn't work all that well; that's why so many promising young writers turn into bumptious old windbags.)

But what if you happen to write your masterpiece first? How do you spend the rest of your literary life? The answer, I suppose, is that you spend that life any way you want, producing anything you feel like as long as people keep on buying.

Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" was a limitlessly ambitious novel, an aesthetic marvel, a wondrous marriage of extraordinary plot and unforgettable characters, held together with passion and love and a prose style beautiful beyond words. It addressed a certain historical time of great importance (a dreaded dictator's bloody takeover in Chile) but it transcended history. It was the author's cri de coeur, a despairing lament for the evil of which the human soul is capable, together with the stern admonition that exactly because of that evil, in the face of so much wrongdoing, the rest of us must stretch our poor capacities for doing good to the utmost. Not that good will ever win, not that the world will ever be "improved," but that to be fully human we must try.

Granted, "The House of the Spirits" was a hard act to follow, but Allende didn't seem to be trying very hard. Her newest, "Daughter of Fortune," is a generic if good-hearted historical novel, the story of a headstrong teenager raised in Santiago who follows her lover as a stowaway to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and has many an adventure.

Why can't I, as a reader, just follow Allende along as she spins out this essentially harmless stuff? I think it's because of (in a reverse example of what was so extraordinary about "The House of the Spirits") the plot, the characters and the prose style here. It's not as though Allende can't write well; she obviously just doesn't want to be bothered.

Here's the plot: Eliza is a foundling in Santiago, raised in the Sommers family--a spinster sister named Rose and a stiff-necked bachelor brother named Jeremy, both English expatriates. Eliza grows up schooled in the female arts. She practices piano with a rod strapped to her back and we're told (five times!) that she's made to balance a book on her head to improve her posture. Then, when Eliza is 16, she lays eyes upon the love of her life and suffers "a physical reaction not unlike the epizootic." That is to say, she doesn't feel well. Her indigenous governess consults a 100-year-old sorceress but no spell on Earth can fight the power of first love.

Her beloved soon abandons Eliza to sail to the gold fields. Pregnant, she follows him and begins a friendship with a Chinese physician named Tao Chi-en, who strives for harmony in all things. Eliza experiences a convenient miscarriage aboard ship.

We're shown a generic 19th-century Canton, where "even punishments and executions became a cause for celebration. Great crowds gathered to cheer on the executioners, with their bloody aprons and collections of sharp knives that could lop off a head with a single sure-handed blow." Then we get to San Francisco, where all kinds of people have already shown up: "Europeans fleeing wars, plagues and tyrannies; Americans, ambitious and short-tempered; blacks pursuing freedom; Oregonians and Russians dressed in deerskin, like Indians; Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians; Australian bandits, starving Chinese peasants who were risking their necks by violating the imperial order against leaving their country."

America! California! What a concept. "The marvel of this country was that everyone believed their children would have a better life than theirs." This is a place where traveling prostitutes can build up a "support network" in their community; where Eliza, after a couple of years disguised as a man, is elated to find that her unbound breasts still sport "nipples like garbanzos."

This is less a novel than a pageant. Surprises are set up with all the subtlety of a big resonating gong: If spinster Rose once had an affair with a Viennese musician who once had an affair with a woman who once had an affair with the Marquis de Sade, you can be sure there's going to be a payoff, and there is. Eliza, after those many adventures of hers, will settle down to be with the love of her life, but it might not be the one she started off pursuing. Historical figures come and go, the Northern California scenery is breathtaking, and--I don't know, if Isabel Allende doesn't worry about this kind of writing, why should I? This is a free country, after all. She can do whatever she wants.

Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays