I have read a number of things by Isabel Allende over the years, starting with Zorro, when I was really probably to young to appreciate Allende’s prose, because my brothers and I were obsessed with the movie The Mask of Zorro, starring Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I cannot tell you how many times we watched that movie. Anyways, one year one of us got the novel as a gift from our parents and it, too, made the rounds. Well, probably just me and one of my brothers read it, as the other one is less of a reader. Regardless, when I saw that one of the “bonus” prompts from The Reading Women Challenge 2020 was to read a book by Allende, I was excited to pick up something new by her. When I realized that I had still yet to read this one, her first published novel and, arguably, one of the most well-known of her titles, I knew this had to be the one I read.
“You can’t keep the world from changing…”
This novel tells the story of three generations of the Trueba family, starting with the patriarch, Esteban, and his wife, Clara’s, early lives and following them through the tribulations of their marriage, with Clara’s otherworldliness and Esteban’s “traditional” points of view and political aspirations. It follows the forbidden romance of their daughter Blanca and Pedro Tercero Garcia, and the escapades of their twin sons Jaime and Nicolas. And it finishes with the life and trials of Blanca’s daughter, Esteban’s beloved granddaughter, Alba, as their South American homeland races into a future of revolution and dictatorship.
This novel is told through the voice of a narrator from the “present” day, looking back over the generations of the family and the changes time has wrought both upon them and their country. Bear with me here a bit, because I know it’s not everyone’s favorite and I’m super biased, but I seriously LOVED the magical realism in this story. Magical realism is one of my favorite genres/styles and no one does it like the South American authors do. Honestly, it’s been quite some time (too long, if I’m being honest) since I read something like this and I did not realize how much I needed it in my life. (If you’re paying close attention, yes, I did recently read Like Water for Chocolate, which absolutely is magical realism in this style, but also it seemed childish and choppy to me, whereas Allende’s prose is smooth and smart.) Anyways, even though the novel covers turbulent years and myriad types of violence (TW: rape, torture of political prisoners), the style of the writing allowed for me to get swept into it, recognizing and bearing witness to those aspects, but in a way that allowed me to keep moving and not get overly weighed down. I loved all the female characters in the novel. Their mysticality was individual, yet bound them all together in strength and resolve over the years. Each woman was unique, faced her own struggles and used her own power/capability in moving through her life, yet each managed it all with a grace that transcended and passed from one to the next in its own way.
Relatedly, but sort of on the flipside, we get to see/hear parts of this story from Esteban’s own mouth…and I am not sure how I felt about that. His words were so grounded and absent of that mysticality and strength that I was pulled from the beauty of the rest of the story. Now, to be fair, that may have been the point, as his voice and personage clearly represented the rampant classism/sexism/racism/colonialism and general right-wing “fanatical, violent and antiquated” points of the view in this story and throughout South American (and global) history. (And, frighteningly, can still be seen quite clearly, in the right-wing fight for “family and tradition and low and order” that certain political parties and leaders that has turned to an extreme repressive and oppressive level. *cough* Trump/alt-right *cough*) Anyways, perhaps that’s what bothered me so much…that so little has progressed and changed since the time of this character that is clearly meant to be a caricature of these, what should be (and yet are not), obsolete opinions. However, it’s an important point of view for the story and its presence does make a necessary sort of sense. Plus, one can only hope that the regrets of his old age are indicative of the possibility the future holds.
All that being said, there are also many moments of hope and deep/lasting/abiding love sprinkled all throughout this tale. During this historical study of a region and a people, the reader watches the cultural change over years and can see the cyclical (but progressive) nature of it. As a side note here, the one constant point from start to finish is the presence of sex-workers, and the message that they will always hold influence, which I enjoyed as a point of commentary. Well, that and the particular and titular House itself -and I am always a fan of using a structure or other similar inanimate “observer” over time in a novel like this. But anyways, it is not just a cycle on a large scale that we see, but on a smaller one as well. We see Esteban Trueba’s horrific treatment of women (both strangers and those close to him) comes back to “haunt” him in the way his granddaughter suffers towards the end. And on some level, that chain of revenge makes sense. Yet, the ending of the novel holds a perfect message about breaking that cycle, that chain, and learning to heal from the past so that the future can be a better place. It’s a gorgeous lesson, though a difficult one to swallow and accept. I applaud the way that Allende brought such an extensive story to such a satisfactory and believable end.
This is a spectacular and comprehensive intergenerational family saga that traces not just the story of the family itself, but also the complex political tapestry of a country, over decades. Written with the magical realism that is a hallmark of great South American literature, Allende clearly pulls from her own experiences and knowledge to create a story with powerful authenticity and compelling development. If you are looking to learn about a people and a way of life and a recent history (in a technically unnamed South American country, but presumably Chile, as that is the author’s home country), as well as become invested in individual romances and hardships, all through the lens of the macro/political and the familial/personal simultaneously, then this is the novel for you. Get ready to be swept off your feet.