Customer Reviews: The House of the Spirits (Everyman's Library Contemporary Classics)
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on May 2, 2003
The House of Spirits is probably Allende's most famous and important book. In it, she chronicles the life of a family, as the patriarch grows from a child to an elder, with the world changing all around him while he tries to keep it the same. Through the lenses of the Trueba family, we follow the portion of Chilean history that eventually leads to the 1973 coup. Of course, the author is niece of Salvador Allende, the socialist president democratically elected that was removed from power and killed by Pinochet.
The book is based on clashes; old versus young, communists vs conservatives, landlords vs tenants. As the story unfolds, we view the extremist positions that each side takes: landlords attacking tenants, conservatives attacking communists, and vice versa. From the polarization of positions emerges a military dictatorship that no one wanted, but that was a product of the system setup by polarization.
In the end, the distinctions that originally separated young from old, conservatives from communists, are removed, as both sides realize the futility of their disputes in the face on an authoritarian regime.
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on September 19, 2000
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende's luminous saga of the Trueba family, as seen through the eyes of the women, is more than a wonderful book; it is an ode to the courageous, compassionate and forgiving spirits that all people are capable of becoming. Even after witnessing the horrors of Chilean military oppression, Allende dared to write a novel that denies a basic pessimistic view of humans and instead reveals mankind's capacity to endure suffering and self-transformation for the sake of life, love and justice.
In The House of the Spirits, Allende shows us that the cruelest outbursts of evil and violence of which man is capable are committed during civil war: genocides, mass murders, concentration camps. Man is definitely mankind's greatest enemy. It is truly horrifying to think that the sufferings of Jaime Trueba could be supported by authentic testimony: "They tied their hands and feet with barbed wire and threw them on their faces in the stalls. There Jaime and the others spent two days without food or water, rotting in their own excrement, blood and fear, until they were all driven by truck to an area near the airport. In an empty lot they were shot on the ground because they could no longer stand, and then their bodies were dynamited."
Jaime is just one among many characters who suffers horribly under the military oppression portrayed in The House of the Spirits. Yet, Allende courageously dares to offer hope that reconciliation is possible and that people are capable of much more noble actions and emotions.
In this book, Allende seems to be telling us that evil is not a simple thing and that violent behavior is a complex act. She also portrays every act as having a cause, whether known or unknown. Alba, one of the main characters, is able to understand why Colonel Garcia, hating her so strongly, sets out to destroy, slowly and painfully, both her life and her spirit. Ironically, Alba is Colonel Garcia's own cousin, through both her grandfather and her father.
A luminous character, Alba, through an understanding of not only her own position in time and place, but also through an understanding of her greatest enemy and torturer, reconciles herself with life and chooses to forgive and "break that terrible chain" of hatred. Instead of hating, this extraordinary woman focuses her life and her love on the one man in her life, the guerilla leader Miguel, and her unborn daughter.
Allende's novel captures Alba's spirit of reconciliation in her name, which means, in Spanish, "dawn." Alba is, indeed, the embodiment of hope as she proves that people are not bound to be evil. Alba, herself, even suggests that that her enemy's hatred had a definite cause and that she, or anyone else, could prevent further malicious acts and emotions when she says, "And now I seek my hatred and cannot seem to find it. I feel its flame going out as I come to understand the existence of Colonel Garcia and the others like him...It would be very difficult for me to avenge all those who should be avenged, because my revenge would be just another part of the same inexorable rite. I have to break that terrible chain."
Allende has told us that she writes to bring about necessary changes in Latin America of which the most important are "real revolutions of spirit, of values, of life." She says that the attitudes and beliefs of people's minds can shape the destiny of multitudes that so far have been living in only pessimism and despair. No one was born good or bad, says this book, and reality is what people believe it to be.
This absence of a judgemental tone may be partially explained by the fact that the military is an integral part of the people. Soldiers came from the families whose members were persecuted by these very same men. The characters of Esteban Trueba and his son, Jaime depict the sharp contrast between good and evil.
This is a book that will haunt you with its swirling romanticism, its superbly crafted interweaving of close family observation and political raison d'etre. Allende is a writer so graceful and elegant that she manages to break our hearts and fill us with joy at the same time.
Even after witnessing the horror that people are capable of committing, Allende refuses to despair. By exploring the causes of both the evil and loving actions of the characters in The House of the Spirits, Allende reveals the immense power for change that lies in our own spirits as long as we believe that we can make our world and ourselves a better place.
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on February 20, 2002
"The House of the Spirits" gives the reader an extraordinary view of 20th century Chilean history. Through the Trueba family and the myriad characters that drift in and out of their lives, we see so many of the elements of the political and class struggle that continues until this day. Beginning with the landowner vs. tenant worker conflict and culminating with the left-wing vs. right-wing political/social conflict, we are given a glimpse into the inner workings of a country in turmoil. We see the horror of the Conservatives when a Marxist government is democratically elected, and their terror when the coup they so finely crafted becomes a dictatorship as terrible as they expected the Communists to be. Neither the left nor the right were winners--only the military.
I lived for several years in Chile during the 1990's. Even though Chile is emerging as a stable, fairly democratic economy, the political struggle remains. I could never grasp the true essence of my Chilean friends' passionate hatred for or passionate support of the Pinochet regime until I read this book. I always marveled that there was no middle ground. Now I understand why.
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on October 18, 1999
I watched a young student the other day on the subway reading the House of the Spirits. He slowly rose from his seat when he reached his destination and almost walked into the subway doors as they were closing. I then followed him as he walked down the platfom bumping into people all the way. He could not take his eyes from the pages, even as he walked. I was excited for him because I knew he was in for the ride of his life but I was also jealous because he was experiencing for the first time one of the most dynamic and complex books I have ever read. The incredible Ms. Allende created some of the most remarklable relationships between people in any book; husband and wife, brother and sister, mentor and student -- but the most beautiful and complete relationships are among the phenomenal women in this breathtaking novel. As soon as I finished the novel, I gave a copy to everyone I know who cares about literature. I then read everything that Allende has put between two covers and called a book. I have never been disappointed.
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on November 15, 2003
Isabel Allende is an accomplished and talented author, an artist with words.
The multi-generational story of the Trueba family is used to weave an intricate tale of Chilean history, from the early turn of the century through the upheaval and revolution of the 70's.
While the background is Chilean historical fiction, the real depth of the story are the unique individuals of the Trueba clan.
The patriarch of the family possesses a wild, volatile, uncontrolled temper and a deep obsessive ability to love through possession.
The woman of the Trueba family are amazingly unique and sincere and at times seemingly untouched by the day to day realities of life.
The House of Spirits is a story of strong love, acceptance, betrayal, class prejudice and dreams. It is a story of how one family deals with all these issues and after all the dust has settled, those left standing realize the importance and depth of family bonds.
Allende's novel is a touching familial tale that transcends both time and location and opens your eyes and heart to the possibilities life offers.
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on June 19, 2006
"The House of the Spirits" is a family saga set, ostensibly, in a nameless Latin-American country. The country is clearly supposed to be Chile, but that is not a word that appears anywhere in the book. The latter part of the novel deals with a military coup which topples a left-wing government from power; possibly Isabel Allende adopted the device of concealing the identity of the country she is writing about in order to deflect possible criticism that her account of these events owed more to family feeling than to objectivity. (She is, of course, the niece of Salvador Allende, the left-wing Chilean president who was killed in such a coup in 1973). Two of Ms Allende's later novels, "Daughter of Fortune" and "Portrait in Sepia" can be seen as "prequels" to "The House of the Spirits" in that they chronicle the lives of earlier generations of the same family; both are quite definitely set in Chile.

The chronology of the novel is almost as vague as its geography, although references to the two world wars and other world events suggest that it covers approximately the period 1900-1980. It has a basic plot that owes something to Galsworthy's "Forsyte Saga". The "man of property" in this case is Esteban Trueba, a wealthy man whose wealth derives from his ownership of a large country estate. Like Soames Forsyte, Esteban is married to a beautiful younger woman whom he loves passionately but who cannot return his love. His wife, Clara, is a member of the Del Valle family who also feature in the two earlier works mentioned above. "The House of the Spirits" details the story of their courtship and marriage and the lives of their children and grandchildren, intertwining this with the wider story of their country.

Like her uncle, Ms Allende clearly has left-wing political sympathies. The book can be seen as the story of the growth of the socialist movement in her country to the point where it is able to challenge the established order, only to be frustrated by the military's seizure of power. Although Esteban is the central character, he is in many ways an unsympathetic one. He is an unthinking conservative who sees himself as a strict but benevolent father-figure not only to his family but also to the peasants on his estate. His wife, his children and his tenants, however, see him more as an autocratic bully who will tolerate no dissent from any of them. His children all rebel against him- one of his sons, Jaime, becomes an idealistic left-wing doctor, the other, Nicolas, an eccentric mystic, and his daughter Blanca has an illegitimate child by one of the peasants. Esteban- by then an old man- initially supports the military dictatorship, even after Jaime has been murdered by it, only to turn against it when he realises how brutal it has become.

Although Ms Allende seems to sympathise with the socio-economic aspects of Marxism, she does not share Marx's philosophical materialism. She may not subscribe to any organised religion (the Catholic Church generally appears in the book as a negative force on the side of political reaction) but clearly believes that there is a spiritual side to life. The book is much more "magical realist" in tone than either "Daughter of Fortune" or "Portrait in Sepia". This tone comes out most strongly in those parts of the book dealing with Clara, a clairvoyant with supernatural powers, not only to foretell the future but also to move objects by telekinesis. There are frequent baffling and unexplained events. For example, both Clara's sister Rosa and her granddaughter Alba are described as having hair that is naturally green in colour. No explanation for this strange phenomenon is given; it is simply stated as a fact, although there is nothing in the plot that turns upon their hair being green.

Ms Allende is never really able to unite the "magical" and "realist" sides of her work into a coherent whole, so the supernatural elements often seem like intrusions into what is for the most part a realistic novel. Two things she does succeed in uniting are her personal and political themes. Esteban is both a vivid character in his own right and a symbol of the authoritarian old order in Latin America. The author avoids the error she was later to make in "Portrait in Sepia", where she concentrated too much on a passive and colourless central character; Esteban may be unsympathetic, but he is never passive or colourless. Occasionally, especially in the central part of the novel, the narrative seems to get bogged down in too much family detail, but recovers its urgency in the parts dealing with the coup and its aftermath. Overall, this is generally a readable book with some memorable characters.
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on December 10, 2003
Isabel Allende has magic inside of her. I say this because it takes pure magic to make me enjoy a book as much as I enjoyed this one. At first, it started off a bit slow and tedious but once I managed to get through the first chapter, everything else that followed was brilliant. Her novel, The House of the Spirits, has a bit of everything. It has a South American vibe, political warfare, a big family, conflicts between men and women in society, physical abuse, and this is just the beginning.

The characters are very well developed and this impressed me. I feel like I know so much about each individual whether they are the protagonists, Clara and Esteban Trueba, or minor characters like Amanda and Transito Soto. Allende includes all of her characters consistently throughout the novel which is important and key. They all somehow tie in together creating this mass web of an intricate and interesting story.
The plot takes course over a long period of time, a generation it seems like. Clara is clairvoyant and very spiritual and intuitive while her husband is ambitious and pretty much evil. Esteban rapes girls and obsesses over his wife, Clara. They have three children, Jaime, a scholar, Nicolas, an adventurer, and Blanca, a girl in love with a man she is forbidden to see. There are passionate relationships and themes of forbidden love and pride. It seems like a lot of the story also focuses on the difference between men and women and the rich and the poor. Esteban prohibits Blanca from seeing a boy from the Tres Marias. His name was Pedro Tercero.
At times the story was a bit disturbing. I found it a little graphic when the setting was at whorehouses or scenes of rape.
Overall, thanks to my English teacher for assigning this book to read. Had it not been for her, I would have probably never been exposed to such a wonderful piece of modern literature.
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VINE VOICEon March 23, 2002
THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS is yet another wonderful novel written by Isabelle Allende. Set in Chile and spanning several generations, it tells the story of Esteban Trueba and his efforts to build an empire, so to speak, on his property THE TRES MARIAS. The story is filled with many memorable characters, including Clara, the clairvoyant daughter of the Del Valle family, who marries Esteban despite the fact that she does not love him. Through her, he builds his family and his little empire.
The telling of the story is a mix of comedy and tragedy. Allende mixes the stories of Esteban and his family with the background of political upheaval, which Esteban gets involved with during the latter part of his life. The first half of the book is filled with crazy and memorable characters that help keep the tone of the book light, but as the story moves on, the political plot line takes center stage.
I highly recommend THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS. It was not my first Allende novel. I had already read DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE and loved it! THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS and DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE are must reads, and if you enjoy both of these, PORTRAIT IN SEPIA is another book you need to read! It picks up where both novels leave off.
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on October 5, 2001
I read this book when I was 20, and loved it. It is a great story about life, death, family, friends, war, and everything else you can think of.
Isabel Allende manages beautifly to mingle fiction with reality, and tells the story of a family, and especially the relationship between a girl, who is telling the story, her mother and her grandmother. They are not the only characters in the book, and, as in real life, the story is filled with many different people that come through the door of anyones life, some stay for just a few seconds, some become best friends, some even enemies. But, even with so many different characters, they are very complex, yet very simple and real, which makes you laugh and cry along with them all through the book.
I loved this book in part because it is an excellent story, but also because it gave me an insight of what was happening in Chile during the 20th century, and how the people that lived through it were able to make it, and also because it showed me that the people we love are never gone from our lives, even if their physical selves are no longer with us.
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on October 9, 2012
House of the Spirits...sigh. I don't understand all the rave reviews. To be honest, I'm a little jealous that so many people had amazing experiences with this book. Whenever I tried reading it, I got so tired. It's weird, I've never been more bored with such a well written book.

I'll just be blunt and list my problems with the book.
I guess I just don't get the "magic realism" thing. I'm still confused about what the telekenisis, future predicting, and spirits really had to do with anything. Don't get me wrong, I understand what magic realism is, I just don't feel that it's a compelling or engaging element of the story (in this book). Infact, it became irritating. I still want to know what is so fascinating about stuff floating around and Clara talking to spirits.

It also seemed like every female character was a saint, and all the men were unpleasant, if not rapists, perverts, or insane. Ok, I'm being a little unfair. There were some ok male characters. Probably named Pedro, or Esteban, I don't remember. Even they were a little annoying though. A revolutionary song-writer. Right.

Why is everyone named Esteban or Pedro? I've read some other reviews complaining about too many characters. It's not that there's too many, it's just they all have the same name! (oh, and you can't rely on last names either, considering that there are two called Esteban T. and everyone else seams to be a Garcia) I can appreciate lots of characters, but I was forced to write them down on a piece of paper to keep track of them all. Jeez.

Decapitated by a windshield? Is this even possible? Like, from a physics standpoint? Or is this more magic realism? And why on earth is there such a boring passage about searching for the head? Or rather, how could searching for a persons head be so boring?

Why such a black and white political view? Just because I'm a socialist myself doesn't mean I don't notice when a book is hitting me in the face with it's political agenda. Blech.

Who is the count? What is his character? Why is he here?

Why don't any of the characters develop? Like, at all. In any way. They remain static throughout the entire 4000 (or so it seems) pages. I read books for a nice mix of plot, character developement, or philisophical message. HotS had none of these. It's more like a description. A family tree on some powerful steroids.

Why does Rosa have green hair? Magic realism? Why is she "the beautiful"? And why do we care?

Why is this book soooo long? Why is this review so long? I guess even a review of House of the Spirits forgets what the point is.

Ok, ok, ok, ok, ok, I guess that can all be boiled down a simple "why?". This book is so long, and yet, by the end I didn't care about any of the characters. I was just tired. Tired of the spirits. Tired of gruesome passages describing dead bodies, necrophiliacs, beatings, torture and rape. Oh, and there's plenty of rape in this book. So much, that by the end when Alba is being tortured I paused mid-sentence, looked up and thought, "wow, I don't care at all" then "wait, which Esteban is this?". I just wanted this book to end so I could read something better. Even my literature teacher seemed to be getting tired of teaching lessons based on this book near the end. You know it's bad when an English teacher seams impatient with a story!

If you got through this meandering review, you'll have experienced a bit of House of the Spirits. Long winded, biased, and in the end pointless. I also don't know how to write a conclusion. For that matter, neither does Allende.
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