In 1998, Susan Wise Bauer, writing in Christianity Today magazine, suggested that the theme of suffering connects the novels that Oprah picks for her Book Club. From A Virtuous Woman to I Know This Much is True, Protagonists suffer senselessly, and "All the books," writes Bauer, "reveal a grasping for certainty, a dogged determination to find reasons for pain. In the words of an Oprah heroine. "Discomfort is always a necessary part of the process of enlightenment.""

Bauer argues convincingly that although Oprah's novels ask Christian questions, they scorn Christian answers. But even if you don't agree with Bauer's conclusion - "the Oprah novels are ultimately dishonest, offering false consolation that can only lead to deeper despair. For in the end, without God, the sufferer will not find community, courage, newfound love, and gambling profits. She will find instead a void" - most of us who have skimmed a few Oprah novels know these are books that aim to teach spiritual lessons.

In an effort to figure out just what those spiritual lessons are, Beliefnet will offer a few words on Oprah's pick-of-the-month (we hope you'll post a note on the message board and tell us what you think). Oprah's selection this month is "Daughter of Fortune," by Isabel Allende. Allende's sixth novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century, and it recounts the coming-of-age of Eliza Sommers, a Chilean orphan who adopted by British brother-and-sister pair, Rose and Jeremy Sommers, a bachelor and a spinster. (Rose tells Eliza that God sent her to the Sommerses so that she would be "brought up in the solid principles of the Protestant faith and the English language.") Eliza grows up; falls in love with Joaquin Andieta, a man beneath her station; gets pregnant; follows her lover to California where he has caught a case of Gold Rush fever; teams up with a Chinese herbalist; and has a series of picaresque adventures, most of which require her to dress as a man. At the end of the novel, she discovers two things: she wants to feel, act, and dress like a woman again; and she is in love not with the scalawag she has been chasing for four years, but with her loyal friend, Tao Chi'en. (Can it be a coincidence that his name is Tao?)

But there is also a spiritual lesson of sorts buried in The Daughter of Fortune. Dressed again like a woman, in a dark gown trimmed with lace, Eliza tells Tao she is giving up her search for Andieta. "Imagine," she says. "All this long, dreadful journey in vain." "Nothing is in vain," Tao replies. "You don't go anywhere in life, Eliza, you just keep walking."

Tao's claim bolsters Susan Wise Bauer's point: Oprah's novels present hope, but perhaps a false hope. The lesson of The Daughter of Fortune is even more desolate than some of Oprah's other novels, which at least suggest that the protagonist can save herself. Here, Eliza transforms herself from a woman to a man and back again, only to learn that she can never really get anywhere. On the last page, we find that she has taken Tao's advice - she keeps on keepin' on, walking, her hand in his, though it is not clear just where they are headed, or why.

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