Here's the thought that kept popping into my head as I read The House of Spirits:
I used to love this book.
I must have read it at least 15 times during my teenage years, when I was going through my hardcore romantic phase. My moody teen period, if you will. It was everything I wanted in a book; romantic, dramatic, fun to read, and the characters were always saying beautifully poetic things to each other. It was perfect.
Not so much anymore. Not at all. And that makes me kind of sad.
House of Spirits is the first novel by Isabel Allende, a Chilean writer who quickly became the best known female novelist in Latin America. It's a book heavily (and I mean heavily) influenced by the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, set in a world that's half fantasy-half real. It's essentially the story of three women from different generations and their relationship with the patriarch of the family, Esteban Trueba. The history of Chile (though the country is never specifically named) plays along in the background.
Esteban is an angry man. He's always angry. He yells, he fights, he alianates everyone around him. He's built his fortune from the ground up, but is never happy; mostly because his family is a bunch of weirdos. I really can't blame him for being so angry. Clara, his wife, is a clairvoyant who spends her time living in her little bubble of a world where she talks to spirits and makes things move with her mind. They have three children: twin boys and a girl. One of the boys is crazy and takes after his mother, the other one is an intellectual weirdo. The daughter, Blanca, falls in love with a poor boy who works for her father. When she's about 5. She spends her life pining after the boy, living in her own little bubble of a world and fighting with he father. She and her lover have a daughter, Alba, who thankfully doesn't live in a bubble. She and Esteban are the only truly interesting characters in the book.
So the book is about this bizarre family and the bizarre things they do. Every now and then the real world intrudes and shakes things up a bit before everyone goes back to their assigned places. It's only when the real world comes in to their lives that the book turns interesting. When earthquakes, pests or wars come in at least we're spared from the perfection of Clara or the utter boredom of Blanca's life. The book is fun when it's written from the point of view of Esteban, who is the only character who is fully fleshed out and three dimensional. Alba's story is definitely interesting, but unfortunately it comes too late in the book to save it. The rest of the book is a collection of too-quirky, too-cutesy stories that get badly repetitive and just make the characters annoying.
It's a disappointment, really. Allende is a good writer, with a good rhythm to her prose (I can only imagine that this doesn't translate too well into English) and some great insight into Latin American culture. She's imaginative, but I can't help but feel that I've read it all before. There are some things that are shamelessly ripped right out of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and some of the characters she loves so much are just plain annoying. I can see how I was charmed by it when I first read it, but havinig epanded by literary world since then, I have to admit that this book lost its luster for me. It bored me easily, the characters and situations were irritating, and I came close to giving up on it a few times. There are some nice things about it, but for the most part it's just sort of unremarkable.