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The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (Review)

The house of the spiritsThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Age: Adult
Genre: Magical Realism
Source: My copy
Publisher: Bantam Books, 1970
ISBN: 0553273914 / 433 pages
Find this book at your local library

The House of the Spirits traces the saga of a Chilean family through the course of three generations. We follow one of the central characters, Clara, from her childhood to her death, along with her various family members and friends along the way. The novel focuses heavily on the theme of filial-duty and does an outstanding job of transitioning through the years, discussing the socio-political upheaval in Chile as well as in the rest of the world. The characters are full of spirit, deeply layered and complex. Each character deserves a novel in their own right to fully tell their own story.

Despite all the positives about this book, I felt is lagging in a number of the ways. I wasn’t engrossed by Allende’s writing style. It is passive, and at times unbearably descriptive. She has a habit of telling you what’s going to happen to a characters years in advance, so that there is no real suspense in the plot. There is a mention of magical realism at the start of the novel: Rosa’s green hair, Clara’s telepathic powers, her Uncle Marco’s mysteries chest of books. However, the magical realism ends there. While Allende constantly discusses Clara’s clairvoyant nature and tendencies, these elements were lackluster and didn’t really aid the plot.

Allende jumped around from character to character, betraying any sense of consistency in the book, although it did follow a typically chronological path. I think the book had too much going on as well. Too many characters that were not discussed enough. It also didn’t help that the story, told mainly in the third person, was occasionally told from the perspective of Esteban Trueba.

Trueba was engaged to Rosa, but he married Clara. Along the way, he raped numerous peasant girls that worked on his land, as well as beating the others into submission. He is a terrible, terrible person, and why Allende chose to take us into his mind, I’m still wondering. It is to sympathize with him? To understand where that type of cruelty comes from? This book, if nothing else, is an excellent study of the most base and horrific aspects of human nature. All the characters are flawed, very few are likeable. Romances soured, relationships faded, loyalties fell apart, mental and physical violence and dominance was also a major element of this book.

The end took a drastic turn towards the macabre, something I wasn’t fully expecting, based on the timid first 300 pages of the novel. Then again, Allende was so wordy that I ended up not really paying attention to what I was reading towards the end. Her passive tone did not convey any sense of the urgency that the plot eventually veered towards.

I would probably recommend this book for anyone looking for a family saga type of novel in the vein of East of Eden and Wild Steps of Heaven. I would recommend this book for fans of Latin-American authors who write provocative pieces that encourage the reader to read outside of their comfort zone and learn about the difficult times and difficult lives of those around the world, In the Time of Butterflies comes to mind. I would not recommend this to fans of magical realism, as that element is missing from this title. I would not recommend this book for readers who prefer dialog over description and prefer plot over character development. This book is filled up the wazoo with character development but has a snail-paced plot driving it along.

The House of Spirits (Pre-review thoughts)

The house of the spiritsI’m about 3/4th of the way through Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, and I have a lot of thoughts to sort out before the official (and most likely short) review. There is a lot packed in this book. I’ve been reading it for over two weeks now, mostly because of the writing style. It constantly undulates from interesting to boring. The entire piece is written in the passive “let me tell you everything” instead of showing style of writing. It gets really frustrating at times, because I would like to know what is going on in the minds of the characters, not just what their outward appearances and actions tell me. The only character whose perspective we hear from is Esteban Trueba. I’m still trying to decide why she choose him, of all the characters. Is it to humanize him? He is incredibly dreadful in the book.

I would have liked to hear from one of the brothers, Nicholas or Jaime. They both took such interesting, dark turns in their lives. Why did they make those choices?

So much in this book is left unexplained. I am at once interested in the characters, but put-off by the narrative. It makes the book tricky to get through and it makes me wonder if I want to pick up another one of her books after this one.

It is an epic family saga, much like Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Victor Villasenor’s Wild Steps of Heaven, and I’ve heard it compared to Gabriel Marquez Garcia’s 100 Years of Solitude.

For the most part, I think she did an effortless job of transitioning through the generations and family members. They are all interwoven, the old and the young with their own stories, one shining more than the other as the years progress. I don’t dislike the novel, I just wish there was more variety in perspective between the characters. They all seem so rich, layered and full of secrets and knowledge, yet we as readers are kept at an arm’s length distance from it all.

Has anyone else whose read this book found the same frustrations as I have?