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2nd March
2010
written by Steph

Maybe not the ugliest cover ever for a book, but it's up there...

Right before the winter holidays, I had the pleasure of attending a Secret Santa book swap hosted by my friend Trisha.  To this festive fête I brought a wrapped copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, because it’s one of my favorite books, and is also the book that first exposed me to one of my literary loves: magical realism.  I was delighted when a copy of The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende wound up for grabs that night, because it’s another magical realist book I’ve been wanting to read for quite sometime.  Alas, the copies I’ve always come across at the used bookstore have always been horrific mass-market paperbacks with atrocious covers, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy any of them.  They were just too ugly!  Now, I won’t say that the copy I wound up with at this book swap has a beautiful cover (the art is clearly airbrush work of the 1980s), but it was a lovely hardback copy with decaled edge pages, and the girl (named Eliza, who is also a friend, and also a Spanish-language speaker extraordinaire!) who brought it attested to the quality of the translation.  With all that in mind, I only felt a little bad when I stole it from another party attendee, forcing her to dive back into the wrapped gift pile. The House of the Spirits is a hard book to summarize, in part because so much happens.  It is one of those sweeping family epics in which readers are privy to the lives of the Trueba family over the course of three generations.  We begin with Clara as a young child, and watch as she grows up, marries Estéban Trueba, has three children of her own, and eventually becomes a grandmother and dies.  As the women in each generation reach maturity, the narrative torch is passed from woman to woman, though Esteban himself recalls parts of the past in his own words.  The beginning portion of the novel has much to do with love and relationships, but there are also discussion of social class (peasants vs patróns) and politics. In the last 100 pages of the novel, there is a shift so that the narration revolves heavily around politics and social uprisings, dealing with the first election of a left-wing leader in Chile and his ultimate deposition by a dictatorship. In a way, it was slightly ironic that I traded in One Hundred Years of Solitude for a copy of The House of the Spirits because I felt the two were actually very similar in a lot of ways.  First off they are both multi-generational sagas, and they both obviously have healthy doses of magical realism.  But more than this, as I read The House of the Spirits, I kept feeling faint echoes of One Hundred Years, in ways that were more difficult to pinpoint.  There might be the occasional plot twist or event that made me link the two, the strongest example being that I found the endings of the books to be freakishly similar.  The two obviously shared the theme of sins of the father being passed down to subsequent generations, that history perpetuates itself in a potentially unbreakable cycle and much of our actions and fates may be predestined. Perhaps it was these ideas that caused me to so strongly associate the two books, since ultimately I felt the two books were speaking to similar issues, though of course Allende’s novel had the Chilean backdrop and thus, slightly different social concerns (though if I remember correctly, there were political elements in One Hundred Years as well). I tried very hard to keep the two books as separate in my mind as I could, refraining from comparing one to the other, as I wanted to evaluate House of the Spirits on its own merits and as its own book, not benchmarked against something else I had previously read.   But really, how can any of us as readers do that?  I feel like every book I read changes me as a reader, helps me define my tastes and preferences, and as much as we might try, I think it’s very hard to respond to books as though they are in a vacuum. My read of The House of the Spirits was necessarily colored by my past reading experiences, especially my past experience with One Hundred Years, and that’s just something I had to accept and be up front about. Ultimately, I enjoyed The House of the Spirits, but I didn’t love it the way I did One Hundred Years. Judging solely on the basis of these two books, I’d have to say that I prefer Márquez’s writing over that of Allende’s.  I think both are phenomenal storytellers, but there was an elegance to the former’s writing that I didn’t always see in the latter’s.  I think Allende is a strong writer, one capable of crafting powerful and interesting images, and also one who can plumb great depths of emotion in her prose, but to me Márquez is a master who is practically unparalleled.  I remember finding almost every sentence in One Hundred Years arrestingly beautiful, and it was a novel in which I reveled in both the writing and the tale.  It was hazy and lush, just like the country Márquez was describing.  The House of the Spirits was captivating and compelling and it affected me deeply, yet I always felt like it never fully managed to extricate itself from the shadow of One Hundred Years and truly shine. I think one thing that held me back from fully embracing this book was that my cursory reading about it revealed that many felt that it was a treatise of sorts about female strength and the role women play in holding families and even society together. I did see glimmers of this, but as I said earlier there are swaths of the book narrated by Estéban Trueba, who is not only the sole character to speak in his own voice throughout the book, but who also is incredibly violent and behaves horrifically against many of the women who are featured.  There are constant references (though not graphic) to rape and beatings and few of the Trueba women are treated with kindness.  I admit that I was somewhat unsettled by the almost casual reference to the way in which women were treated in the novel, and I found it extremely offputting. I wondered why the book had a misogynistic vibe, and whether in some subtle way Allende was accepting of this kind of behavior.  I concede that in the end there finally feels as though there are recriminations against this violence and submission, but it still bothered me that for so much of the novel the violence is treated as though it is trivial. Still, in the end this was a book that left me with my emotions in a turmoil and was one in which I felt the characters really came to life.  I felt a bit bereft when I was done because I had spent so much time with them, I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself now that they weren’t there to keep me company any more.  I thought this was a powerful novel, and one that gave me an interesting insight into Chile’s political past and the history of its people, something I didn’t really know anything about before.  The latter portion of the novel that deals with the political upheaval and the installment of a dictator reminded me a lot of Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies.  I suppose that’s not all that surprising, given that that novel focuses on the rebellion against a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. [As an aside, Alvarez’s novel is fantastic and is one I would highly recommend!] All in all, I was pleased with my first encounter with Allende and would happily read more by her in the future, though oddly I don’t feel compelled to rush out and do so immediately.  I can’t speak definitively, but if anyone is curious about Allende, I’d say this is a fine place to start as it's a remarkably strong debut novel. [FYI: My copy was translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin, and it was indeed a very good translation.  Very lyrical and smooth; for the most part, you wouldn't even realize/remember that you were reading something not originally written in English.] Rating:  4.5 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. 03/02/2010

    Allende is one of those must-read-someday authors. I have several of her books, including this one, on my shelf, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

  2. I haven’t read anything by Allende yet, but have a couple of her books here (not this one) It is great to know that you enjoyed this one. I’ll have to see if I can find a copy.

  3. 03/02/2010

    I had a bad experience with Allende’s fiction once (I actually can’t remember the title of the book I disliked, ha) and have kind of shied away from her ever since. But, I did love her memoir My Invented Country, and One Hundred Years od Solitude is also one of my favourite books…if this is a little similar, even if not as good, then I think I’d like it.

  4. 03/02/2010

    I have never read anything by Allende, but I did pick up a copy of this at a book fair a couple of years ago. I, too, loved one Hundred Years of Solitude, and think that it is probably one of my all time favorite reads, so it will be interesting to read The House of Spirits with your comments about both books in my mind. It sounds like a great read although it suffers by comparison. I actually pulled it off of my shelf a couple of weeks ago to make a stack of upcoming reads, so it’s cool that you featured it. Great review, Steph. I will have to try to get to it soon!

  5. 03/02/2010

    @ Amanda: Allende was in the same boat for me, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten to her this soon in life if not for that book swap! I’ve wanted to read this one for several years now, so I’m glad I finally got the chance!
     
    @ Jackie: I pretty much know nothing about her other books as this is the one I’ve fixated on. I’ll be interested to see what you think!
     
    @ Nymeth: A bad first experience with an author can be catastrophic! I really do think though that if you enjoyed One Hundred Years than this one would be worth your time to check out.
     
    @ zibilee: I’m glad my review was so timely! I think you’ll find that few books can really stand up to Hundred Years, but this does an admirable job. I hope you enjoy it when you get around to it!

  6. 03/02/2010

    I don’t think the misogyny would appeal to me. Between that and the ugly cover, I don’t think I want to read it!

  7. 03/02/2010

    Steph, you made me laugh! We have the exact edition. The hardcover is a lovely kind, so I threw out that atrocious cover!

    You summed up everything I felt about this book. I do enjoyed it very much, and maybe if One Hundred Years hadn’t been written then this would be great. As it is, I also am partial to GGM.

    I really loved this book, but sadly am not compelled to read anything else by her, other than maybe the Portrait in Sepia (continuation of the family saga). I’ve read Daughter of Fortune (also a continuation) but I didn’t like that very much. I felt it was a bit forced. Not as natural as this one. On second thought, one of my friends said The Stories of Eva Luna was good.

    But DON’T ever read the YA books (I think a trilogy) that she wrote. From what I’ve heard, they’re her worst.

  8. 03/02/2010

    I read this last year and felt pretty much the same way you did. The casual treatment of rape early on was particularly troublesome, but I think Allende turned it around by the end. If the whole book had continued like the first bit, I wouldn’t have liked it so much, but I thought it improved as it went along. It is still my least favorite of the Allendes I’ve read. Portrait in Sepia is probably my favorite, but it’s the story more than the writing than stands out there.

  9. 03/02/2010

    “Ultimately, I enjoyed The House of the Spirits, but I didn’t love it the way I did One Hundred Years.”

    My opinion as well. I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work so much that it is difficult to live up to any of his works in my mind. Allende (after two attempts) just has not clicked for me and I am not sure why? More realism than magic? I am not sure.

    Loved your swap story and your cover design angst. Claire and I always have these same issues so it is particularly funny that she has the same edition as you!

  10. 03/02/2010

    @ rhapsody: As I said, there is some recourse for all the violence in the end, which definitely helped but it was disconcerting and hard to stomach at times. I guess as far as the cover goes, at least it’s a dust cover so I could slip it off and not look at it!
     
    @ claire: LOL! I don’t think I could actually throw out the dust cover, but it really is horrible to look at! I don’t blame you for tossing it.
    Not sure what else of her I would read, but I’ll definitely steer clear of her YA fic! You know that’s not really my genre anyway.
     
    @ Teresa: I remember reading your review and I do think we reacted quite similarly to this book. I really appreciated the way you articulated your feelings about the violence that occurs in the book. I’ll have to keep Portrait in Sepia in mind should I decide to dip back into Allende some day.
     
    @ Frances: You’re right that few books could ever live up to Marquez’s work – he’s really a genius. I found I felt somewhat disconnected from this novel at times, and agree with you that there was something about the magical element that felt a bit off.
    I can’t decide if this version is more or less ugly than the ones I’d seen before, but what sealed the deal was that even if the cover art was ugly it wasn’t a mass market paperback and that was going to have to be good enough! 😉
     
    @ Rebecca: I love magical realism, but admit I need to read more of it too! I find that I have to space out my reads, however, because otherwise it’s an overload to the senses and I find it’s not as inspiring as when I intersperse them with non-magical realist writings.

  11. 03/02/2010

    I remember enjoying some Allende books but i can’t remember which ones (other than it wasn’t this one). At any rate, i need to read more magical realism. I really enjoy it!

  12. My view of Isabel Allende is that she is Gabriel Garcia Marquez-lite. I went through an Allende phase in my late teens/early twenties and read most of her novels published at that time; a few years previously I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude and now elements of them are inextricably linked. I love GGM and I really need to reread One Hundred Years as I know it is beautifully-written and deserves to be at the forefront of my memory. The other GGM works I have read came later so they doesn’t exist so much confusion although one of Allende’s novels is entitled Of Love and Shadows, which I sometimes mix up with Of Love and Other Demons…

    I’ve had my Allende phase and like my Stephen King and John Grisham phases, she belongs to my youth; Marquez, on the other hand, is for all time.

  13. 03/03/2010

    Hi Steph! Glad you enjoyed this book. I really thought this was fantastic piece of fiction. Thoroughly engrossing and rich in detail, I thought Allende did a superb job with this novel. I’ve never read any GGM, so I don’t really know if his work is any better. All I do know is that really enjoyed The House of the Spirits.

  14. Eliza
    03/03/2010

    Oh, come now — “the girl”… not even a name mention?!? Seriously, though, I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, and now I MUST read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

  15. 03/03/2010

    @ Claire: I loved hearing about your history with Allende! I haven’t read nearly enough of her to make a full-fledged comparison between her and GGM, but it seems that you certainly have!
     
    @ Nadia: Yes, this book is very rich in detail, but I never thought it was overly descriptive such that it dragged! An important skill for a writer! And if you did enjoy this then you really must read some GGM!
     
    @ Eliza: I’m sorry for the unintentional snub! I have since updated the post to give you the acknowledgment and shout-out you deserved! And yes, you must read One Hundred Years!

  16. 03/10/2010

    I have been waiting for a review of Isabel Allende from a trusted book blogger who similar similar taste with me. Isabel Allende is an author that has been repeatedly recommended to me and for certain reason, I have never thought to pick up even when I see the books on the shelf. Your review confirms my logical thinking that if I have enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude tremendously and have managed to re-read a couple times, why should I read another novel with a similar style and plot?With the exception of OYOM, I don’t fare well with novel that meanders through generations as narrators relay their torches. Allende I should read, it’s just a matter of time. 🙂

  17. 03/10/2010

    I have only really read Daughter of Fortune and I quite liked. I was surprised by how easy it was to read, not overly literary at all.

    I have read a couple of GGM books (although no too days…), and I agree with one commentator’s opinion that she is GGM-lite. Very apt observation 🙂

  18. 03/10/2010

    ouch…a typo. In my previous comment please read “too” as “100”

  19. 03/11/2010

    @ Matt: Despite the fact that there are certain similarities between the two novels, I never felt like I would have been better off just reading One Hundred Years… There are different emphasis throughout and different perspectives, and as I said, this novel felt far more political to me. But I could see how someone might feel this was redundant. I do think Allende is still worth your time, but perhaps a different book!
     
    @ Nish: I didn’t find this novel hard to read, but I would say it did seem quite literary to me. I wonder to what extent Allende’s style has evolved over the years…

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