The House of the Spirits is the story of both the Trueba family and of the country of Chile itself, and to be honest I thought the pages in which Allende describes the social and political upheavals of the time were by far the more interesting than many of the ins and outs of the Truebas. The novel opens by describing the childhood of Clara del Valle, the future wife of Esteban Trueba. She has several rather unusual gifts, including clairvoyance and telekinesis, and is a warm, loving, kind woman (albeit more than a little scatterbrained), while her future husband Esteban rapidly becomes a deeply unpleasant man: self-righteous, tyrannical towards the people who life and work on his estate, and a serial rapist.
And that's where I hit my first snag with this book. If Clara is clairvoyant - if, as is later revealed, she knows these things about him, and if as she says she does not love him, then why the Hell does she marry him? It's made clear that the decision is hers, and the only justification you get for that in 500 pages is that "it's her destiny".
I found that explanation to be a bit spurious.
Esteban and Clara have three children together: Blanca, and then the twins Jaime and Nicholas. Blanca, frankly, was the type of wet blanket character I most loathe: described as permanently intimidated by her father, she falls in love with her childhood friend, the son of Esteban's foreman, and is married off to a French nobleman when her pregnancy becomes known to her father. To be honest, that was the chapter I most enjoyed; it's absolutely hilarious, stuffed with a dark, sardonic humour I hadn't been expecting at all. But Blanca and her brothers never really get a voice of their own in the novel; their stories are nothing more than the bridge between Esteban and his granddaughter, Blanca's child Alba, told at a breathless, breakneck speed that reduced Jaime to the shy, suffering martyr doctor and Nicholas to the reckless, careless playboy. I would have loved to know a little more about them.
Then Alba takes centre stage, and while not as outright annoying as her mother (although I admit I developed a new fondness for Blanca after reading aforesaid hilarious chapter), she still feels a bit flat. Like the rest of the book, her life rushes by like the landscape outside a moving train's windows, and the most noticeable things about Alba are the men in her life: her grandfather Esteban, and her lover Miguel. Miguel is a revolutionary and, in my eyes, something of a violent fool; his precise political beliefs are vaguely described as "socialist", and the amount of time he spends talking about "violence of the people" made him instantly unsympathetic to me. I felt as if there was an edge of fanaticism to him I really didn't like. Alba becomes a socialist for his sake. The first time I felt we got a glimpse of the person Alba really was was during the dictatorship, when she takes it upon herself to start smuggling people out of the country who would otherwise be executed. That was when I started to like her, and to feel that she was a real person.
All in all, Esteban is certainly the most interesting character in the book. His love for Clara borders on an obsession; he's a rapist, a racist, one of the men who encourages and brings about the military dictatorship (only to discover that maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all), and still he somehow manages to be someone you almost like.
Almost, but not quite.
Finally, a word of warning: don't take that "magical realism" tag too seriously. Sure, Clara's clairvoyant, and she can move salt cellars with her brain, and she appears to her granddaughter in the hour of Alba's greatest need, but if that's all that happens in the way of magic, I almost feel like the novel doesn't deserve the moniker of magical realism.
But then again, I read a lot of fantasy. I'm spoiled for magic.
The House of the Spirits is an entertaining read, fairly well written, with a breakneck pace, instants of absolutely hilarious black humour (Esteban and his supposedly estranged son Jaime rob a grave at one point), and several carefully written passages about Chile's recent history that are interesting, informative and smart. I enjoyed it, but I'd onl recommend it with the caveat that yyou're willing to put up with one or two silly characters, several ones who deserved more screen time than they got, and a promise of "magical realism" that fell a bit short for my taste.