Given recent events, the timing couldn’t be better for this historical fiction from Allende (The Sum of Our Days, 2008, etc.), which follows a slave/concubine from Haiti during the slave uprisings to New Orleans in time for the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1770, Toulouse Valmorain arrives in Haiti from France to take over his dying father’s plantation. He buys the child Zarité to be his new Spanish wife Eugenia’s maidservant and has her trained by the mulatto courtesan Violette Boisier, whose charisma could carry a book on its own. Barely into puberty, Zarité is raped by Valmorain, who gives the resulting son to Violette and her French army officer husband to raise as their own. Eugenia bears Valmorain one legitimate heir before she descends into madness. Zarité, who is devoted to pathetic Eugenia until her early death, lovingly raises baby Maurice and runs the household with great competence. She also submits to sexual relations with Valmorain whenever he wants. When Zarité’s daughter is born, Valmorain assumes the child Rosette is his and allows her to remain in the household as Maurice’s playmate. Actually Rosette’s father is Gambo, a slave who has joined the rebels and become a lieutenant to the legendary Toussaint Louverture. When the rebels destroy Valmorain’s plantation, Gambo and Zarité help him escape. In return Valmorain promises to free Zarité, who stays with him, she thinks temporarily, for the children’s sake. Valmorain relocates to Louisiana, where Eugenia’s brother has purchased him land. His new wife, jealous and vindictive Hortense, makes life unbearable for both Zarité and Maurice, who is sent to school in Boston. While Valmorain, less a villain than a man of his time, finally grants Zarité the freedom he’s promised, more tragedies await strong-willed Rosette and sensitive, idealistic Maurice, whose love crosses more than racial boundaries. Still Zarité, along with the reader, finds solace in the cast of secondary characters, who also journey from Haiti to New Orleans.
A rich gumbo of melodrama, romance and violence.