"With this spectacular first novel, Isabel Allende becomes the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists."
New York Times, May 12, 1985
The House of the Spirits (translated from La casa de los espíritus) is a family story of multiple generations. It plays in Chile (although the country is unnamed in the book) from the early 20th century to the 1970's. Like many of the great South American writers, Allende makes use of symbolism all the time. The book also gives an outline of the Chilean political evolution in the 20th century.
"The wonderful quality of human beings is that we can overcome even absolute terror, and we do"
Short outline of the story
Rosa and Clara are two remarkable daughters of the Del Valle family, because of Rosa's astonishing beauty and Clara's power to move things without touching them and to call spirits.
Rosa's fiancé Esteban Trueba gives up his work when Rosa dies of poisoning and rebuilds the family estate into a perfectly run company. After a few years, Esteban visits the Del Valle family and falls for Clara. She has not spoken a single word since her sister's funeral, but now this all changes and they marry. Daughter Blanca is born after which they move to the Trueba estate.
Here, Blanca and Pedro Tercero García (foreman on the estate) become friends and fall in love. Clara gives birth to a twin (Nicholas and Jaime) while on the same day discovering that her parents have died in a car accident. Esteban's sister Farula dies as well and he is hurt himself in an earthquake. To add to the tragedy, Pedro and the other workers turn themselves against their patron, while Esteban also discovers that Blanca is pregnant, with Pedro being the father. Pedro flees when Esteban wants to kill his daughter's aficionado.
Socialists grab power in the country and senator Esteban's workers occupy the estate and keep their manager hostage. Blanca asks Pedro to step up for him, which results in Esteban's liberation. He promises to make sure they will be able to live together.
When Esteban Trueba dies, his grand daughter Alba decides to write down the family story.
- Esteban: The patriarch, a hot-blooded and proud man whose hunger for land is legendary and who is haunted by his despotic passion for his wife he can never completely possess.
- Clara: The mysterious matriarch, who foretells family tragedy and shapes the destinies of the house of the Trueba's.
- Blanca: Their daughter, soft-spoken yet rebellious, whose scandalous love for foreman Pedro fuels Esteban's eternal contempt, even as it produces the grandchild he adores.
- Alba: The fruit of Blanca's forbidden love, a luminous beauty, a fiery and wilful woman. The family's break with the past and link to the future.
The original version of the book was published in Isabel Allende's native language Spanish under the title La casa de los espíritus. Although I've foldered the book here under its English title (since English is the E2 language) the bestseller was translated in many languages. A list of translated titles I've encountered:
Danish director Bille August made a movie of the book in 1993. As happens to most depictions of true literary works, the movie resulted in little success. The lack of sensation had nothing to do with the impressive cast:
The Chicago Sun-Times put it most clearly when saying:
"The movie works on a certain level simply because it tells an interesting story. The characters are clearly drawn, the story provides ironic justice, and the locations establish a certain reality. The cluttered city homes of the rich families, where every surface is lined with expensive bric-abrac, speak eloquently for their materialistic values and traditions.
But contrast this movie with another film based on a famous Latin novel of romance and revenge, Like Water for Chocolate. That film breathes from its roots and informs us with its passion. The House of the Spirits seems like a road production - like a French Guys and Dolls, an Italian Three Sisters, a British Streetcar Named Desire. All of the characters have the right names, all of the necessary events occur, and indeed the very best local actors have been engaged. But the soul has been mislaid."