I’ve read a number of books by Isabel Allende, and I’m sure I’ll read more. However, I didn’t know about The House of the Spirits (1982) until I saw it on my 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List. As Allende’s first novel, it seems quite personal in nature. Apparently, Allende began writing it as a letter to her 100-year-old grandfather when she heard he was dying. There are some parallels with her real life.
The House of the Spirits is pretty dense and comes in at almost 500 pages. There is so much going on in this story that it’s difficult to summarize, but I’ll try. Allende tells the history of four generations of the del Valle/Trueba family in an unnamed country that closely resembles Chile. There is a maternal connection between the four generations of women in the family, beginning with Nivea del Valle, her daughter Clara (who marries Esteban Trueba), Clara’s daughter Blanca, and Blanca’s daughter Alba. Besides these mother/daughter relationships always being close and meaningful, Allende makes all of their names mean light or white. There is always tension between the Conservative, hard-line stances of their husband/father/grandfather, Esteban Trueba and the effort these women go to in order to help the poor and downtrodden. There is a third-person narrator for most of the story. The only two characters who get a little time from their own perspective are Esteban Trueba and his granddaughter Alba.
Nivea del Valle and her husband Severo are a well-to-do family with some political connections. Clara is their youngest daughter, and Clara has some paranormal powers. She is able to move objects around the room, sometimes tell the future, and see auras.
Esteban Trueba comes from a fine family name, but his father ruined the estate and the family is living in poverty. He is engaged to Clara’s sister, Rosa, a woman of unearthly beauty, and he goes out to the mines to earn a fortune worthy of her. When Rosa dies accidentally from poisoning meant for her political father, Trueba is devastated. He leaves the city, heading for his family’s ruined estate of Tres Marias. With a lot of hard work and the help of bullied peasants, he brings the estate back to its former glory. However, Trueba is burdened with an extreme temper and arrogance. He only sees the good that he does for the peasants on his estate. He does not care that he pays them in scrip that is only good at his store, effectively imprisoning them on his land. No matter how hard they work and how prosperous he becomes, the peasants are stuck in the same position. Also, Trueba has no qualms about raping any of the peasant women (and girls) that were unfortunate enough to be in his power or come to his attention. He is not even aware enough to care about all the damage he is doing.
With his success, he comes back to the del Valle family and offers marriage to Clara, who accepts him. The two live in a large house in the city and have three children, including Blanca. Trueba passionately loves Clara , but Clara lives in the clouds. Trueba is obsessed by his inability to truly possess her. Clara’s daughter, Blanca grows up with summers at Tres Marias, where she meets the son of the foreman, Pedro Tercero Garcia. They have a true connection throughout childhood and grow to love each other. Pedro Tercero Garcia becomes an agitator for change in the landed estates and is banned from Tres Marias by Trueba. Pedro Tercero defies this ban, and he consistently returns for secret trysts with Blanca.
All hell breaks out when Trueba discovers what’s occurred. And when Blanca turns out to be pregnant (with Alba), he forces her to marry a French Count for the sake of propriety. The marriage does not work out and Blanca ends up at the Trueba’s city home right before she gives birth. Alba is a sweet child and perhaps one of the only people who humanizes her grandfather. He loves her, despite their disparate views on the country.
When the conservatives finally lose the latest election, Trueba thinks the communists are going to take over and he encourages a military coup. When it occurs, the brutal, murderous result is more than what he expected. Alba is caught up as she tries to help those who are in danger get out of the country, thinking that being the granddaughter of Esteban Trueba will keep her safe. In the end, what started as rape and mistreatment by Esteban Trueba comes full circle back into his life “…and so on down through the centuries in an unending tale of sorrow, blood, and love.” (480)
I’m not sure how I feel about this book. There was a lot going on and it consistently kept my attention. However, there was something in the way it was written that kept me from feeling too connected to the characters. Between the magical realism and paranormal elements as well as four generations of drama, I always felt a step apart from what was happening. It wasn’t until the end with Alba that I felt viscerally what was happening to her. Allende may have done that on purpose, I’m not sure.
What really struck me about this book was the push and pull between the political right and left, especially within the Trueba family. Esteban Trueba is a character that I wanted to hate, and he represented everything about the rich, conservative class that is abhorrent. But Alba loved him. And it was obvious that he had no clue what he was doing when he tried so hard to possess and control everyone and everything around him. Esteban Trueba lived a life of sad desperation.
Being a very rational and practical person, I didn’t really understand the paranormal elements in this novel. I had a hard time reconciling them with the political realities in the book. However, this was a powerful, nuanced novel, and I’m glad I read it.
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