Monday, February 01, 2010

Book Club! Isabel Allende's THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS

Welcome to Book Club!

This month, we read Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, first published in 1982 (amazing to me, since according to Wikipedia, she only started writing the book on January 8, 1981); Magda Bogin is the Spanish-to-English translator.

Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book you like. For those who'd like to follow comments easily, I'd suggest to subscribing to the comments when you leave yours (that's how I cheat and follow without checking back).


Caroline Starr Rose said...

It's been years since I've read this but it still ranks as one of my favorites. The language is so lyrical, it's hard to believe it is a translation.

I'll never forget sitting down with this book one summer afternoon and looking up, hours later, realizing it was night.

Allende says she starts a new novel every January 8th. She sits down and POOF! it happens.

moonrat said...

Caroline--I really, really enjoyed it too.

To be honest, at first I felt like she was ripping off Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, but then the book changed dramatically.

It's just so hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that this entire book came into being in less than a year. Do you think she wrote it in order? Just sat down and wrote it, beginning to end?

Soph K said...

I feel torn with this one. I immediately saw the similarity it has to OHYO Solitude and felt like it couldn't compare. I fell in love with Marquez's book and everyone in it; with this one I have failed to connect with the characters on an emotional level. On the other hand the language is beautiful and I can appreciate it, but in a detatched way at the moment (got a little bit left to read still). I'm wondering if reading Marquez first has clouded my experience?

moonrat said...

Soph--I definitely, definitely felt that way at first, I promise. Kind of disappointed from the beginning. So many themes echoed--the paranormal elements, the curmudgeonly patriarch and numerous bastards, the diaphanous women, gypsy-like travelers, wise whores... At first I felt like it was just a more female interpretation of the same storyline as OHYOS (I like the abbreviation).

But I started to come around when Alba was born--it became clear to me that this book had more to contribute. Allende's fictional family history might have echos of Marquez's, but she was committed to describing the political upheaval, the civil war, and other uncomfortable elements that don't fit into a rural fairytale like OHYOS. I feel like I learned from HOUSE OF SPIRITS, rather than just enjoying it.

How far from the end are you?

CKHB said...

Have book from library, have not started reading it yet. I'll be back!

Soph K said...

I am just over 100 pages from the end (which is more than a little, admittedly!) but am relieved to hear that because I actually felt a shift in it myself when Alba came along. I do love her character above all the others and am connecting with her 'wise child' nature. Also, just read a bit more at lunch and things are physically moving after the death of a major character (not saying who - spoilers), which I am finding very affecting - the idea of the house breaking down around them is brilliant. I am officially reserving judgement now until I finish it this evening!

moonrat said...

haha let us know, Soph! I found the political stuff very affecting.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I think she's such a genius she did write it as is. Maybe that's just the fan in me talking.

Interesting discussion about 100 YEARS. HOTS was my first taste of the Latin American Mystic Writers. I didn't read 100 YEARS until several years later. Liked it a lot, but HOTS won out for me.

Tere Kirkland said...

I first read this book as a teen and while the political aspects weren't entirely lost on me, it was the characters and the atmosphere that won me over. And maybe some of it is just that the style makes you want to devour it. Having never read 100 Years of Solitude, I was sucked in by the style and mysticism right away.

The House of the Spirits definitely had a profound effect on my reading habits at the time. I think I went back to the library for Eva Luna, and then Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate.

When I was a teen, it was Clara's strange abilities that kept me reading, but to this day, images of her sister Rosa's funeral stay with me. And once I'd finished it, I almost felt like the house was as much a character as the rest of the family.

There's no way I could have written such an epic story in a year. Crazy.

I'll have to pick up 100YoS next time I go to the library. And then maybe re-read Allende. ;)

moonrat said...

I really loved the scene at the end where Alba escapes the prison and is cared for by the weather-beaten old woman. She tells the woman that she runs a great personal risk by helping her, but the woman just smiles. Alba thinks to herself: "It was then that I understood that the days of Colonel Garcia and all those like him are numbered, because they have not been able to destroy the spirit of those women." (P 429 in my little mass market version.)

I was very touched by that--and I think it's true. No matter how bad things get, fundamentally there are good people, and nothing you can do will break them or pervert them.

Soph K said...

Ok ok, so I was a loooong way off the purpose of this book when I had my 100-odd pages left! There I was, lulled into this comfortable family microcosm complete with not-altogether-sympathetic eccentrics when Allende decides to throw them (and me!) into the real world. In the final chapter when Alba is imprisoned I don't think I drew breath - I was glued to the pages until the last word. I suppose the sudden change of pace represents how a country feels when it is plunged from normality into revolution - it was creeping up all the time upon reflection but the violence and upheaval hit me like a glass of cold water in the face!

I can see what you mean about learning, Moonie - I feel a whole lot more world-weary than I did earlier. I also learned not to comment until I have finished the book :)

moonrat said...

world-weary! yes, you've put your finger on it.

you can comment anytime you like, btw.

Soph K said...

I know, I think I felt a little bit of reader-guilt due to my overly judgemental nature! In reference to an earlier point though, if she did write this in a year or less then that is truly remarkable. Stylistically I felt there was hardly a word out of place - that is rare!

Silicon Valley Diva said...

Oh, I need to add this to my list. A few months ago I read "Daughter's of Fortune."

moonrat said...

Diva--what did you think of that one?

B. Paige Hansen said...

I'm currently reading Daughter of Fortune, I'll have to read The House of the Spirits next.

Nancy said...

Hi Everyone,

Sorry I'm late! I was so happy when Moonrat said THOS would be this months book 'cause I read it as part of my FITG reading list a couple of months ago and I've been trying to write a review with no luck since then. It's definitely brilliant, and a debut(!) novel. But she's Isabel Allende - what can possibly be left to say on the review stage?

It isn't my usual type of book (spanning four generations - I have a hard time connecting with entire generations) and I too read and adored OHYOS first, but I was totally fascinated by the way she used the narrator's voice. In fact, I didn't even realize there was a narrator until thirty pages into the book. Only during times of great emotional upheaval does he come out from behind his bush to himself as "I". Normally he refers to himself in the third person. I found the shifts to "I" a bit jarring but they are intentionally so I imagine. The third person reference also felt true to his pride and the respectful formal manner that would be accorded a "Patron".

I'm really glad to read everyone else's comments, you all are showing me lots that I missed - especially about the pacing at the end. I think I'm going to go back and read the last hundred pages again.

moonrat said...

Nancy--thanks for chipping in! I'd entirely forgotten to mention the first person interpolating narrator, so I'm glad you brought it up. The Esteban Trueba portions bothered me at first, too, since there was clearly another (although more absent, less direct) "I" telling the third-person portions. I also noticed his narrative was unreliable and irregular--at first, he had one section each chapter, but then he dwindled.

Although I loved the overall effect of the book, I think this kind of narrative shifting is a form of authorial laziness. I admit that; for me, it was a weakness. I think all books can be narrated with regularity, and in this case that was a hoop Allende didn't force herself to jump through. Just my opinion! But glad you brought it up.

Nancy said...

Hi Moonrat,

Are you saying that the anonymous narrator (whom I assumed was Trueba speaking of himself in the third person) is actually an unidentified character?^ A "watcher"? A voyeur? Hey, hey - that is interesting idea!

Could one, assuming one is not Isabel Allende, get away with the unfinished-ness of not identifying the main narrative character and hope to get published these days or was it ok in this case because we are looking through the eyes of magical realism?

I have only recently become acquainted with the concept of interpolation (stories within stoies), thanks to the collected short stories of Thomas Mann. Still, Estaban's "I" didn't feel to me like a story within the novel - at least not in the same strict way that Thomas Mann's characters enter the pub, greet one another, sit down at a table and order a beer before one of them begins to tell a story about someone they know.

The German language has a nice phrase for an emotional person - this is someone who is "situated too close to water" (which is to say, they cry easily). I thought that there were facets of Esteban that were simply situated too close to water. His "I" felt so uncontrolled (and unintended), like an emotional outbreak as if the story ran too close to him, and the real Trueba - with all his passions broke through showing his bare face and before he could edit himself, he was telling the whole truth too. I found these sections the most compelling, but I (really!) can't blame the author for not wanting to spend too much time inside Esteban Trueba's head.

moonrat said...

Nancy--I'd actually decided for myself that it was Alba, only because of the way the book ends, but it's left very ambiguous.

Your comment is really interesting to me, because I felt the OPPOSITE! I was really angry at Trueba because his 1st person sections made me like him for about the first 60 pages or so--it took me that long to realize he was a despicable human being and he was the one lying to us, not the anonymous other narrator. Hahaha. I definitely see your point, though, about it being a closer narrative.

Nancy said...

- Moonrat, Alba? Hmm, could be. I'm glad to have a couple of hours on the bus today, your suggestion sends me back to my book to look again.

Thanks again for an educational and very, very fun book club selection.