A best seller and critical success all over the world, The House of the Spirits is the magnificent epic of the Trueba family -- their loves, their ambitions, their spiritual quests, their relations with one another, and their participation in the history of their times, a history that becomes destiny and overtakes them all. We begin -- at the turn of the century, in an unnamed South American country -- in the childhood home of the woman who will be the mother and grandmother of the clan, Clara del Valle. A warm-hearted, hypersensitive girl, Clara has distinguished herself from an early age with her telepathic abilities -- she can read fortunes, make objects move as if they had lives of their own, and predict the future. Following the mysterious death of her sister, the fabled Rosa the Beautiful, Clara has been mute for nine years, resisting all attempts to make her speak. When she breaks her silence, it is to announce that she will be married soon. Her husband-to-be is Esteban Trueba, a stern, willful man, given to fits of rage and haunted by a profound loneliness. At the age of thirty-five, he has returned to the capital from his country estate to visit his dying mother and to find a wife. (He was Rosa's fiance, and her death has marked him as deeply as it has Clara.) This is the man Clara has foreseen -- has summoned -- to be her husband; Esteban, in turn, will conceive a passion for Clara that will last the rest of his long and rancorous life. We go with this couple as they move into the extravagant house he builds for her, a structure that everyone calls "the big house on the corner," which is soon populated with Clara's spiritualist friends, the artists she sponsors, the charity cases she takes an interest in, with Esteban's political cronies, and, above all, with the Trueba children...their daughter, Blanca, a practical, self-effacing girl who will, to the fury of her father, form a lifelong liaison with the son of his foreman...the twins, Jaime and Nicolas, the former a solitary, taciturn boy who becomes a doctor to the poor and unfortunate; the latter a playboy, a dabbler in Eastern religions and mystical disciplines...and, in the third generation, the child Alba, Blanca's daughter (the family does not recognize the real father for years, so great is Esteban's anger), a child who is fondled and indulged and instructed by them all. For all their good fortune, their natural (and supernatural) talents, and their powerful attachments to one another, the inhabitants of "the big house on the corner" are not immune to the larger forces of the world. And, as the twentieth century beats on...as Esteban becomes more strident in his opposition to Communism...as Jaime becomes the friend and confidant of the Socialist leader known as the Candidate...as Alba falls in love with a student radical...the Truebas become actors -- and victims -- in a tragic series of events that gives The House of the Spirits a deeper resonance and meaning. It is the supreme achievement of this splendid novel that we feel ourselves members of this large, passionate (and sometimes exasperating) family, that we become attached to them as if they were our own. That this is the author's first novel makes it all the more extraordinary. The House of the Spirits marks the appearance of a major, international writer.
What made the novel special to me is the way it weaves family, politics and questions of life and death together into a believable whole. In spite of the novel's wide scope, Isabel Allende never forgets that characters are the heart of the story. Each member of the large cast is a unique, believable person. And although the family lives through an extraordinary time, their basic humanity shines through. Family conflict takes on capitalist-vs.-communist flavor, but the underlying generation gap rings true even for readers living in modern-day America.
Allende's prose is as impressive as her characterization. Every word is well-chosen and meaningful and every sentence is alive with Latin rhythym. Sometimes I even underlined phrases so I could come back to savor them later.
With such a fascinating cast of characters to explore, it would be easy to overlook the "literary" elements of the novel, but these too are well-executed. Through careful, clever motifs and symbolism, Allende warns readers what's coming for Chile's exploitative upper class -- and lets us know they're not going to heed the warning until it's too late. Deciphering these hidden clues is a big part of what made me love the book so much, so your admiration probably won't be as strong if you're not interested in doing a close reading. Even so, the book's fast pace and rhythymic prose are well-suited to casual Sunday afternoon reading -- just steel yourself for the brutal ending.
My opinion of 'The House of the Spirits' has fluctuated greatly during the time I spent on it. Starting out, the personalities of the characters enthralled me; if anything, Allende seems to be an immensely empathic author with a keen sense for the subtleties of the human soul. I also felt, though, that the entire frame of the novel was very evocative of García Marquez' epic 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'. A story spanning several generations, magical-realistic elements, in the background, history quietly goes about its business. I almost got the idea that Isabel Allende had tried to make a Chilean version of the same story, but had failed matching up to Marquez' subtle style.
As the end of the novel drew near, though, it started to come together. Especially the immensely sad and beautiful story of Esteban Trueba's decline I won't forget lightly. The goal of the novel became, at once, extremely clear to me.
In the end, I would call Isabel Allende a writer who doesn't (and shouldn't) depend on sublime stylistic elements, but on the radiant energy and reality of the people she writes about. There are those that would say that 'The House of the Spirits' is indeed based on real people and real events, and they might be right. Still, the depth and vibrant colour in which Allende paints her characters make her a truly great author.
I was hopeful with this book - an epic story about a family whose lives are filled with hardship and tragedy. Sounds like my type of book. But for these stories to really grab me, I have to feel some kind of connection with the characters. They seemed too stereotyped or flat - either they were cruel or noble, or stoic, but I didn't get beyond the simple descriptions. Will keep on trying on this genre though...
As the novel develops, the characters pull you in and the complex landscape of three generations captured my imagination.
In the last third of the novel, I could not put it down. Without saying too much I'll just add that Allende contributes some very beautiful and unique thought on the cyclical, ironic, introverted nature of our lives.
I have no doubt that this story and these characters will stay with me as I continue to reflect on how personalities develop in a family and how people cope with power or the lack there of...
This is a story where "The Beautiful Rosa" of the first chapter was born with green hair and yellow eyes, where her sister Clara was a clairvoyant who made true prophesies and moved objects with her mind and their Uncle Mario constructed from a kit a flapping mechanical bird in which he flew away. But it's also a novel where Clara's future husband Esteban Trueba raped and impregnated just abut every young teen peasant girl in the area, had killed any peasant that opposed him, and where his granddaughter Alba endures rape and torture. I don't know enough to know if the mixture of the horrifying and the whimsical is typical in magical realism, but I do know the light-hearted and dark in the novel didn't for me blend well. It doesn't help that the repellant Esteban is the closest thing to a protagonist in the book, the character that connects every character to each other, and the story that is mostly told in a third person/omniscient perspective is frequently punctuated by his (singularly unreliable) first person narrative. Beyond that, I admit I found the socialist polemic obvious in this book distasteful.
In Neruda's The Sea (bear with me), he opens with, "I need the sea because it teaches me." In simplicity, I believe readers need magical realism and the authors that employ it magnificently, like Allende, because they teach us.
As written in Spirits, "memory is fragile and the space of a single life is brief, passing so quickly that we never get a chance to see the relationship between events; we cannot gauge the consequences of our acts, and we believe in the fiction of past, present, and future,..." Because of my experience in reading Allende and other authors, I think magical realism often offers a looking glass that people can't always connect to as easily in other works of fiction. One that provides an external yet simultaneously introspective gauge that fleshes out our personal view of our lives and the world around us.
I felt that gauge sharpen for me while reading Spirits. I can't say I pin it on a particular character or scene. More that the rhythm of Allende's commix of heavier fabulism in the beginning and the chaos of reality in the end was able to open up a thought process within me that surpassed the identification with, judgement of, or enjoyment of characters. Just as I'm a sucker for any book that prompts further reading and/or learning, I adore those that lead to the expansion of individual thought. The great thing being that Allende's Spirits triggered such while offering a wealth of character, cultural, and political dynamic as well.
Conga line sum up: I'm left feeling inspired and intrigued and a million more words on the technicalities of magical realism or the "who're ya gonna call" list of the authors at the forefront of the genre would lead me right back to the exact same statement. On a personal level, this was a brilliant book. On a reviewer level, I recommend Allende as a writer that will make you think and experience.
“She felt that everything was made of glass, as fragile as a sigh”
I'm at a loss to see how everything is going to tie together.
The cast of characters is a revolving door, coming and going, living and dying, exit stage left, oh no here is another cast of characters to develop and insert into this dreamy fairy tale of life in the 20th century in South America!
I have read several of her books and sometimes the brutality of life in South America causes me distress. I have found that I just dkim or totally avoid the passages that are too gruesome for me. Especially the animals. As I grow older I can take cruelty towards humans, but can not tolerate it directed towards helpless animals..
Chickens, bunnies, poor puppies, cows, horses and the list is endless. "Kill that dog!" For what? Just being a dog doing what dogs do? I know this is an unreasonable response to character development and descriptions. I just can't handle it.
This is the story of the Trueba family. And like "The Thorn Birds" we follow the family through many years. Seeing them grow, fight, struggle, mourn, etc. At the heart is the family patriarch desperate to keep things the same in a changing world. A great book - highly recommended!
Allende beautifully combined a solid world with a transient one of spirits and magic. Clara was, by far, my favorite character. I was a little disappointed that Esteban was the sometime-narrator. He was one of my least favorite characters - but I think that was intended. He didn't seem to be written to be likable.
The last quarter of the book seemed to not really fit, to me. It sank into politics, government, and misery. I realize these are all part of life, but it was just so concentrated that I felt I was reading a totally different book all of a sudden. The cyclical nature of the characters was evident to me even before Alba spoke of it in closing. The epilogue brought everything to a comfortable finish. I wasn't left feeling like anything was missing or neglected. I've already recommended this book to my husband and would easily recommend it to others as well.
As I made my way through the text, it occured to me that it felt less like a novel than a collection of interconnected short stories (like Bradbury's 'The Martian Chronicles'). Some of the vignettes were quite compelling, others disturbing; much of the book seemed to just coast by without any significant momentum. Allende deserves much credit for her vividly drawn, complex, and sympathetic characters. In fact, the strength of her characters, along with some subtle and incisive social commentary, is what makes the book at all worth reading. If these characters could have been placed within the structure of a more engrossing plot, the novel would surely be a masterpiece. As it stands, it is quite remarkable.