House of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136

Because of the author's family background and the political subject matter of House of the Spirits, Allende's best-selling first novel was bound to cause a stir in literary circles. Most initial reviews of the work made it clear, however, that it was the author's talent, not her political credentials, that made House of the Spirits well worth the wide readership it attained. Washington Post Book World critic Jonathan Yardley explained that "The House of the Spirits does contain a certain amount of rather predictable politics, but the only cause it wholly embraces is that of humanity, and it does so with such passion, humor and wisdom that in the end it transcends politics; it is also a genuine rarity, a work of fiction that is both an impressive literary accomplishment and a mesmerizing story fully accessible to a general readership." While observing that some of the minor characters are one-dimensional, New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt added that "Clara, Blanca, and Alba Trueba...are complex and vivid women. And the story's dominant character, the tragically ill-tempered Senator Esteban Trueba, is so appalling and appealing that he easily transcends ideology." "Slowly, this fine, stirring, generous novel casts its powerful spell," Hermione Lee stated in the Observer. While the critic expressed some reservations about Esteban's narration and the sentimental treatment of love, she noted that the novel "is a much more redoubtable and complex narrative, and much more grimly truthful, than at first appears."

Not all early reviews were positive, however. Paul West attributed the "runaway vogue" of House of the Spirits to the popularity of the family chronicle genre and found that the magical elements detracted from the focus on the characters. "As The House of the Spirits advances," the critic wrote in the Nation, "it calms down into the book Allende probably wanted to write, and would have had she not felt obliged to toe the line of magical realism." D. A. N. Jones similarly objected to the magical elements, writing in the London Review of Books that "bizarre little fantasies come sputtering out with an inconsequential brevity, like ideas thrown up at a script conference for a Latin American soap opera or horror film." But other critics praised what Chicago Tribune Book World contributor Bruce Allen called "Allende's gift for dramatic detail": "The most remarkable feature of this remarkable book," the critic explained, "is the way in which its strong political sentiments are made to coexist with its extravagant and fascinating narrative." Suzanne Ruta similarly observed that Allende's "fidelity to the magic realist formula...worked because history provided ample ballast and counterweight to her flights of fancy." While there is "something a bit precious about the story of grandmother Clara, mother Blanca, and daughter Alba," the critic concluded in the Women's Review of Books that "it took courage to turn the ugly reality of 1973 and after into a kind of fairy tale. I read it and wept."

Because of its style and plot, it was inevitable that many reviewers would make comparisons between Allende's novel and Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude. Village Voice contributor Enrique Fernández, for instance, stated that "only the dullest reader can fail to be distracted by the shameless cloning from One Hundred Years of Solitude." While faulting the ending of the novel for using one of García Márquez's "hoariest clichés"—the discovery of a manuscript—Time critic Patricia Blake noted that "Allende is not just an epigone [poor imitator] of García Márquez. Writing in the tradition of Latin America's magic realists, she has a singular talent for producing full-scale representational portraits with comic surreal touches." Many other critics agreed that while Allende may have used One Hundred Years as a model, House of the Spirits is her own unique achievement. A Publishers Weekly reviewer made the comparison with García Márquez and declared that "Allende has her own distinctive voice, however; while her prose lacks the incandescent brilliance of the master's, it has a whimsical charm, besides being clearer, more accessible, and more explicit about the contemporary situation in South America." New York Times Book Review contributor Alexander Coleman likewise remarked that Allende's work differs from the fatalism of García Márquez's work in that it is "a novel of peace and reconciliation, in spite of the fact that it tells of bloody, tragic events. The author has accomplished this not only by plumbing her memory for the familial and political textures of the continent, but also by turning practically every major Latin American novel on its head." The critic added: "Rarely has a new novel from Latin America consciously or unconsciously owed more to its predecessors; equally rare is the original utterance coming out of what is now a collective literary inheritance." In a Latin American Literary Review article devoted to comparing the two works, Robert Antoni determined that there are significant differences, including the feminine, first-person voice; the presentation of Clara's manuscript as history, not prediction; and the interesting dialogue created by including Esteban Trueba's voice in the narrative. In Allende's work "historical writing replaces magical writing, tragic sentiments replace comic sentiments," the critic concluded. "All this amounts to a novel which—more consciously than unconsciously—may begin as an attempt to rewrite One Hundred Years of Solitude, but which discovers itself as a unique statement."

Further assessments of the novel have examined it from a feminist perspective, analyzing the author's depiction of the patriarchal society of Latin America. Critics have also paid attention to the role that writing and storytelling play in the novel, thus presenting an examination of the nature and uses of art. Reviewers have generally come to value House of the Spirits not only as a commentary on turbulent political times in Chile, but also as a powerful piece of humanistic fiction. Sara Maitland noted in the New Statesman that House of the Spirits "seemed to me to take South American 'magic realism' a step further in the direction I have always felt it could go—to a fictional technique which can carry universal meaning within its own specific location of character and place." Coleman suggested that House of the Spirits is well worth comparison with the best works of the Latin American "Boom." As he concluded in the New York Times Book Review, Allende is "the first woman to approach on the same scale as the others the tormented patriarchal world of traditional Hispanic society and to argue that the enraged class violence in Latin America is a debate among men who are not only deaf but who have fixed and unalterable ideas on all subjects. And she has done all this in an absorbing and distinguished work that matches her predecessors' in quality as well as scope."

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