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I think the words that best describe my reaction to this one is: "erm. hmm". There were good bits, there were interesting bits, there were informative bits, even, but a great deal of the book feels like filler text. I don't outright dislike it - I can't even say that it bored me. Allende writes engagingly; the prose is quick and easy, the pace rarely slows. But something just wouldn't match up, and I suspect it was the characterisation, which, in a family saga where the whole book is driven by and rests on the shoulders of these people, is a pretty big thing to get wrong.

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.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 31st, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende and have been wanting to read The House of the Spirits for a while now. I saw the movie years ago, which is a bummer, since I always like to read the book first. The movie was decent enough (having not read the book) but I have a special place in my heart for both Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons.

The library closest to me never seems to have a copy, so I always move on to something else and have thought about even buying it...maybe I'll just request a library transfer before ponying up the cash.
Jan. 1st, 2010 12:30 pm (UTC)
Note to self: check out Daughter of Fortune.

I know what you mean about wanting to read the book first; but like I said, I'm not sure if I'd actually recommend it. It somehow manages to never be boring while being populated with some seriously underdeveloped characters. I can't tell if that's an advantage or not.
Dec. 31st, 2009 05:14 pm (UTC)
The only thing I loved about The House of the Spirits were the last 50 or so pages, maybe more, when she starts talking about the political regime, etc. The rest felt as though she was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude fanfiction and failing at it. But it's a good book for a first novel and a good book in general, I just probably didn't like it that much because I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez's prose.
Jan. 1st, 2010 12:26 pm (UTC)
I think Allende could have written an excellent and informative history book ;) That last section was one of the most gripping to me as well.
Dec. 31st, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
That book gave me nightmares.

I think Clara lived in a world where women didn't have a lot of options and freedom, especially in matters of marriage, and so didn't see herself as having a lot of options. Sure, she could see the future, but she could only see one future.

I saw the movie version, and it was awful and had nothing to do with the book.
Jan. 1st, 2010 12:25 pm (UTC)
I mostly agree with you about Clara. It's just that I got the impression the del Valles were perfectly prepared to turn Esteban down if she didn't want him, which was why it puzzled me so much that she felt she "had" to marry him.

I was going to go looking for the movie now, but you've given me doubts ;)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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