Book Review: The House of the Spirits

0553273914Read for: Selection #2 of the Gabriola Book Club

Rating: 3.5/5

This book was decided upon at our last meeting as a remedy to the sour taste left in our mouths after collectively declaring that we hated Her Fearful Symmetry. Both fall under the “magical realism” umbrella, and it was thought that The House of the Spirits was far superior to the story told by Niffenegger (let’s be honest though, the bar was set pretty low with HFS.)

The story begins in Chile with two of the de Valle family’s daughters, Rosa (the oldest) and Clara (the youngest). Rosa is a green-haired beauty with mermaid-like features, and Clara is a clairvoyant with the ability to move small objects with her mind. Things are starting to become interesting as Clara predicts an unexpected death in the family, which turns out to be Rosa. She is killed by accidentally ingesting poison intended for someone else. From there the story delves into the lives of the family that go on to span four generations.

I was really looking forward to this selection and while I liked the ideas presented in this book, I felt the execution was a little on the sloppy side. It was brought up in our meeting that Allende described her writing process once in an interview; she sits down to write a story without a framework to start with, or even an idea of what the story will be or a sense of the characters that will be involved. She just starts writing and lets the story evolve as she goes. According to the Wiki page for the book she actually sat down to write a letter to her dying grandfather, and it eventually evolved into The House of the Spirits. It’s a neat idea (and maybe one that gives hope to totally unorganized wanna-be writers like myself) but you could definitely tell that the story wasn’t really planned out effectively the further you got into the tale.

I did enjoy that the story predominantly revolved around the women of the Trueba family (Nรญvea, Clara, Blanca, and Alba – all meaning “white” in one form or another) and that they were all intelligent and strong. I found it strange though that for a tale that was meant to be about the women of the family the only consistent character from start to finish was a man, Esteban Trueba. He is introduced at the start as Rosa’s fiance, and after her death he goes on to marry Clara and start a family. Because Esteban makes the journey all the way to the end he also ends up being the most developed character, where the 4 generations of women get sort of glazed over or have their story lines fizzle out. Clara’s paranormal abilities end up going nowhere, and after the initial descriptions of her moving salt shakers with her mind very little happens on that front. In fact, the whole tone of the novel makes a major shift about 3/4 of the way through and I would argue departs completely from the magical realism genre and moves more into a historical fiction describing the 1973 Chilean coup d’รฉtat. This was certainly interesting, and Esteban’s character evolves in a satisfying way (he’s basically a jerk for most of the story) but it felt like it needed to be a separate book.

Throughout the novel the narrator occasionally switches from an unknown third person perspective to Esteban’s first person perspective, then an additional first person perspective that we later learn is Alba’s. During the reading it was a bit jarring, though the reason for the POV switches was explained in the epilogue. In the end I’m not sure if it was totally necessary to have the first person perspectives, particularly from Esteban as his contributions to the story were mostly accounts of his raping of women and, later, his complaining that he was “too old to rape” (too bad so sad Esteban.) Including his POV also helped build his character and cement him into a more central role in the telling of the story when the focus was intended to be on the women of the Trueba family. Overall, there were aspects of this book that I really enjoyed, but on the whole it felt disjointed. I liked the female characters but wish more time was spent developing them. Totally by accident, I was listening to an audiobook copy of Love in the Time of Cholera while reading a hard copy of The House of the Spirits and there were many similarities, particularly between Florentino and Esteban. It actually became confusing and I had to finish one before I could proceed with the other. There are quite clearly many cultural nuances that are lost on me as I am not familiar with life in Latin America… maybe this year I should change that!

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