Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
Part One: December 1991 to May 1992
Sitting by Paula’s hospital bed in Madrid and waiting for any sign of improvement as her daughter lies in a coma caused by a rare blood disease, Allende begins to tell the story of her life with the purpose of offering her own past to her ill daughter. ‘‘Listen, Paula. I’m going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost.’’
Allende begins with her Chilean heritage and national history, her family tree, the controversial circumstances of her parents’ marriage, and Allende’s birth. Often switching between the vivid memories of the past and the silent waiting of the present by Paula’s hospital bed, the narrator introduces a complex web of relatives that surrounded her during her childhood, after the scandalous divorce of her parents: her father abandoned the family after a political scandal at the Peruvian embassy, in which he might have been involved. Back in her maternal grandparents’ home in Chile, little Allende forms strong and lasting bonds with family members and begins to develop a sense of liberal politics as she observes the lives of her family’s servants. She also learns the art of storytelling from her spirit-summoning grandmother Meme and her grandfather Tata. After her mother’s marriage to Chilean diplomat Tio Ramon, the family moves again, and Allende spends her teenage years in Lebanon. Because of the political unrest in the region during the 1950s, she is sent back to Santiago to finish school; there she meets her first husband Michael. They have two children, Paula and Nicolas.
Allende proceeds to write about her professional adventures, from her work for the United Nations to her work as a journalist. During the 1960s, Allende relates how she developed into a feminist liberal while traveling and greatly expanding her social life. When she attempts to interview
poet Pablo Neruda, he advises her to use her creative talents to write fiction; advice she will eventually take. Further, the author recalls the victory of Salvador Allende in 1970, only to contrast it with the events three years later when the military coup under Augusto Pinochet fully disrupts the life she had in Chile. The first part of the book ends with the heavy atmosphere of a Chilean police state and terror that is yet to be fully comprehended.
Part Two: May to December 1992
In the second part of the book, as she learns of Paula’s brain damage and the impossibility of her recovery, Allende abandons the letter format of her writing and proceeds to tell a story as an autobiography. While moving Paula to California, where she can take care of her in her home, the author begins to recall the years of her life after 1973, when her homeland changed forever.
Many people around Allende suffer under the Pinochet regime, and she and her family organize ways of helping those in need, always afraid of possible consequences. The author loses her job as a journalist for political reasons, and the family begins to feel the pressure of anonymous threats. In 1975, they flee Chile and seek asylum in Venezuela, where Allende experiences one of the worst periods of her life. With great difficulty, she finds a job as a school administrator, but the rest of her life seems to be falling apart. As her relationship with Michael begins to disintegrate, Allende looks for comfort in an affair that ultimately ends her marriage. Exasperated and depressed, the author begins to write to her dying grandfather (Tata) in Chile; the letter becomes a novel, The House of the Spirits. At this point, Allende explains the somewhat superstitious process she goes through in her work, the purpose of her writing, and the techniques she employs; she also recalls the connections between the real people and events in her life and the characters and adventures described in her fiction.
Allende’s marriage seems beyond salvation, so she divorces her first husband in 1987; about a year later, she meets Willie and remarries, moving to California with him. Settling into her new life and new professional identity as a writer in America, Allende criticizes the role of the United States in Latin America. At the house she shares with Willie, she takes care of Paula and slowly accepts the inevitable. She lets her go with a final goodbye, and the book ends with Paula’s departure into the world of spirits, exactly one year after she fell into a coma.