Review: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 50

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

I finished reading The House of the Spirits approximately 20 hours ago; I have held off on writing a gut-reaction review because I felt this book deserved much, much more.  This is definitely one of the best books I have ever read, and probably the second best this year (after Lust for Life by Irving Stone).  The story spans three generations of Chilean women, grandmother-mother-daughter, but all from their births and onward (so, really, we also get glimpses at a fourth generation – the grandmother’s mother).  Of course, the many other families, friends, foes, and “others” in these women’s lives are also present and one of the great things about Allende’s delivery is that, though the book is about the women, she manages to never make their husbands and lovers or their children feel like “stand-ins” for any portions of the story.  The women are all endowed with certain supernatural gifts – Clara, the mother and beloved wife, is one of the greatest seers and spiritualists of her time. Her daughter, Blanca, is not nearly as gifted as her mother, but she has a certain sensuality and telepathic ability which results in her being sought after by pretty much everyone. Blanca’s daughter (Clara’s granddaughter), Alba, re-inherits, so to speak, the grandmother’s gifts – and it is Alba who eventually tells the long, tangled story of love and politics, history and family, tradition and superstition.  What made this book further fascinating for me was the discovery that its author, Isabel Allende, is the niece of former President of Chile, Salvador Allende.  He was apparently the first democratically elected Marxist in Chile and he was either assassinated or committed suicide.  Historical fact seems to point toward suicide, but Allende’s narrative clearly drives home the point that she, at least, believes the former President to have been assassinated, as the man made a radio speech during a bombing and siege of the Presidential Palace stating that he was democratically elected by the people and would serve until the end.  Suicide, then, within hours of this claim seems unlikely and Allende is clearly claiming that his opposition (which included the Nixon administration), assassinated Allende and made it look like he had killed himself.  The intrigue, the history, the intense sensual and spiritual and political passion – it is almost too much to grasp.  The story of these three women is so engaging and interesting that you almost do not realize that you are learning an incredible amount about the history and people of Chile.  It was not until the end, when the greater political action began to take precedent that I realized Allende had been teaching me so much about a country which I have taken for granted pretty much always.

4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
I was very worried at first that I would begin to get characters confused, particularly because the main characters were all female and “gifted” in one way or another, and they were related and interacted regularly with the same minor characters throughout the book.  But this was not a problem.  Allende delineates each character quite well, clearly defining and describing each so that it is almost impossible to mistake them.  She also does the same for her minor character, like Clara’s brothers, Blanca’s lover, Pedro Tercero, the phony Count and husband de Satigny, Alba’s lover, Miguel.  Even more crucial than the characters being genuine and identifiable, though, are the way the grow and develop throughout the passage of time.  The prime examples are Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter, Alba, who are the two characters present (physically) for the majority of the story and who close the novel at the end.   We watch Alba grow from a small child to a strong, capable woman.  We watch Trueba visit the del Valle family as an immature, self-conscious youth and ultimately witness him grow into the wealthiest landowner and most staid, powerful Senator in Chile.   The way these characters, all of them, interact with one another – from the poor peasants of the ranch to the doctors, the soldiers, the neighbors, and the ridiculous mystics – is so interesting to watch, so fun to engage in, and so real, despite being largely impossible most of the time (at least the magical side of it).  The strength of characters and their interactions, coupled with their continued growth and development throughout the storyline does wonders in terms of holding up a plot which, in lesser hands, could have reeled off into the realm of fantasy. 

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I will admit to one misgiving I had with the prose.  The novel is mostly written in the third-person omniscient.  This is perfectly fine and acceptable, particularly in a novel which spans so much time and tackles so many themes – historical, political, and social.  What threw me off quite a bit, though, were these brief interruptions throughout the novel where suddenly the reader finds the prose has switched from third-person to first-person narration.  At first, I thought this must be a fluke – a mistake of the translator, maybe.  After it happened time and again, though, I realized it was intentional and I did not understand or enjoy it.  It was a break from the flow of the story.  Then, I got to the end of the book and I realized what was happening, and it was beautiful.  I cannot deny that, as a first time reader, I was disconcerted by the flip-flop in prose but I can argue, now that I am finished with the book, that it was a masterful stroke and that, when I re-read the book (as I surely will someday, maybe many times) these switches in narration will be lovely and bittersweet, and I will probably chuckle slyly about how superior Allende is and always will be to me as a writer. The magical realism element, too, was done extraordinarily – so well, in fact, that I can only compare it to Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or perhaps some Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though, if I’m being honest, I enjoyed Allende more).  What makes the magical elements work so well in this book, aside from Allende’s hand being at the palate, is the intensely sad but romantic and passionate, personal story behind the story.  This is the story of a people, an impossible, unbelievable story, told from the memory of one of its characters who survives incomparable, unimaginable cruelty and abuse, simply for loving whom she does and for being the grandchild of a man’s mortal enemy.   The ways that history comes back to haunt us is real and terrifying – the bitter, brutal lengths that people go to in order to avenge themselves for grievances in a past barely memorable is stunning, but true.  Whether we are to believe that the magical side of this child’s ancestors was real or not is hard to say – perhaps we are to accept that it is fact or perhaps we are to infer that these are strengths the storyteller imbued her ancestors with because she had found herself so helpless and vulnerable at one point.  Either way, it works.  It works very well.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

I am still stunned by the amount of political and societal history that Allende packed into this novel.  I had never heard of the Socialist struggle in Chile, and I certainly had no idea that Chile was the first nation in the Americas to elect a Marxist President.  The insight into this history, and its ramifications at home, particularly, but also the glimpses of world involvement (or non-involvement) that the reader gets seems, now, essential.  How could I not know this had happened?  Why did we never learn about these struggles – the people’s oppression and revolution; the extraordinary failure that it was, and the metaphorical beheading that the movement endured after the loss of its leader?  How awful was the military coup that followed and the economic sanctions and embargoes?  The greedy, nasty politics of the world.  What haunts me is how similar much of the history seems to U.S. history; how dangerously close we dance along the precipices of time, poised to fall one way or another at the softest whisper or wind.  The similarities to the Nazi movement in Europe and the McCarthy era of the U.S.A – the blacklisting, the “code” words, the censorship – it is so clear to see, in hindsight, how wrong these events were in history and how seemingly easy it would have been or should have been to prevent or curb the movements; but Allende knows better, and she explains the interwoven fates of us all, the uncontrollable, unavoidable chaos which we are all wrapped up in and which, try as we might, fight as we might, tends to barrel over each and every one of us until it gets its way.   The novel winds its way back towards its beginning, closing with the memory of the scene and the very words which opened the book, and this idea of the worlds circular, perpetual fate is planted firmly, though the story seems to carry off into the vast, three-dimensionality of forever.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult, Literary
Interest: Latin-American history, political history, magical realism, family, literature, fiction

Notable Quotes:

“I am beginning to suspect that nothing that happens is fortuitous, that it all corresponds to a fate laid down before my birth….” 

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