Before I started blogging, I read lots of books that fell into a sort of black hole. I might remember that I read them and have a vague recollection of my feelings about them, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything of value about them. Zorro by Isabel Allende is one of those books. I remembered, of course, that it was about the legendary hero Zorro, but the only impression that stuck with me was a sense that I was impatient with it on my first reading. Now that I’ve listened to the audiobook, I remember why that impression stuck with me, as I felt the same way this time.
Allende’s novel is Zorro’s origin story. It’s a grand historical epic that begins in the territory of Alta California; moves to 19th-century Spain, the high seas, and New Orleans; and returns to Alta California for a final showdown. Through his adventures, the young Diego de la Vega learns the skills and picks up the tricks that turn him into Zorro, the heroic outlaw who seeks justice for the oppressed. It’s a good story that shows how many disparate forces—Native Americans, a good-hearted monk, Spanish sword fighters, Romani circus performers, pirates, and gamblers—turned Diego into Zorro. But it also felt a little too much like Allende was checking off boxes, trying to explain each element of the Zorro legend. Why a white shirt with billowing sleeves? Because Diego liked the look of pirate garb. How did Zorro become a virtuoso acrobat? By playing around on a ship as he traveled to Spain and then refining his skills at the Romani circus. Sometimes the connections are heavy-handed, but I did like how Diego’s background was shown to be so special that only he could come up with the Zorro identity.
As entertaining as many of Diego’s adventures are, they too often felt like diversions from the main story. The Zorro story is a California story, yet this novel spends ages and ages and ages in Spain. The Spanish section is necessary, because that’s where Diego becomes educated, hones his fencing skill, and meets his future nemesis, but it goes on too long. By the time Diego leaves Spain, the pirate adventure and sojourn in New Orleans, which were not so very long, felt like annoying obstacles keeping readers from the main story in California. I loved that Allende gave the Zorro legend roots in so many cultures and locales, but there were times when a nod to an inspiration would have done as well as a detailed description and character-building adventure.
When the novel eventually returns to California, the story picks up and then barrels through to the end. The final confrontation with Rafael Moncada is rushed, which was a disappointment after the detailed accounts of earlier events in which Zorro was still finding his identity. After spending hours watching Diego become Zorro, I wanted to see him be Zorro for a little longer.
The novel is rich in historical detail, and it was fun to see the different threads of history weaved together in this one legendary figure. But my initial impression that there’s too much going on remains on this second reading. I’ve enjoyed all of Allende’s books that I’ve read, but her books never quite make it onto my all-time favorite lists. I gather that the ones I’ve read—Zorro, Portrait in Sepia, Daughter of Fortune, House of the Spirits, and My Invented Country—are not widely considered her best. So it may just be a matter of time before I get to Allende work that completely bowls me over. I’d welcome suggestions for the next one to try.