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Isabel Allende has been accused of everything from literary piracy to political exploitation for The House of the Spirits, which was published in Spain in 1982 and translated into English in 1985. The book follows four generations of a Chilean family and their involvement with the turbulent political events of the 1970s. Though it was her debut novel, The House of the Spirits became an instant best seller and won several awards in Chile, the author's native country.
Regarded as one of the most prominent examples of Latin American magical realism, many critics describe The House of the Spirits as a sort of feminist twist on Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. The two novels bear such similarity of style that some scholars accuse Allende of being unoriginal, or even ripping off the Colombian author; on the other hand, many defend Allende for mastering a genre said to be distinctively Latin American, while at the same time lending it her own original and decidedly feminine perspective.
Though it's a work of fiction, the tales in The House of the Spirits bear a lot of resemblance to events of the author's own life – in fact, the novel's first manuscript was a letter to Allende's dying grandfather. Isabel's father was the cousin of Salvador Allende, the first Socialist to be elected President of Chile. Plus, the violent political uprising that takes place in the unnamed country of the novel is universally understood to be an account of the military coup led against Salvador Allende's Socialist government by Augusto Pinochet on September 11, 1973. (That's where the allegations of political exploitation come in – some critics accuse Allende of using her family's last name and political history to sell books. We cry foul. They're just jealous.)
While calling it a testimonial may be a bit of a stretch, The House of the Spirits is certainly a personal novel. The author has gone on record as saying that she often uses real people as models for her characters, and it's possible that we catch glimpses of her clairvoyant grandmother, her son Nicolás, her ex-husband Miguel, and even the author herself in the text's pages.
Family. You probably have one. And, if you're anything like us, your family members just might drive you crazy, at least part of the time. Yes, yes, we know… you have to suffer the torments of annoying younger siblings who mess up your stuff, obnoxious older siblings who tell you what to do, conservative parents who won't let you leave the house in whatever it is you're wearing, and grandparents who believe they know what's best for you.
But the next time you think you've got it bad because your dad disapproves of your latest love interest or your mom starts talking about something embarrassing in front everyone you know, take a look at The House of the Spirits. It might help to give you some perspective (especially on the whole dating issue – parental disapproval doesn't get any harsher than this. Think Montague and Capulet levels of condemnation). Then again, if your mom believes in aliens and holds séances in your house every week, your father is a famously ornery politician with a tendency to fly off the handle, or your crazy uncle has started his own religious cult, the stories in this book might seem sort of normal to you.
Isabel Allende's Official Website
Everything you ever wanted to know about Isabel Allende.
A biography of Chile's greatest poet from the Nobel Foundation, which includes links to his Nobel lecture and to a picture of his Nobel diploma.
Chile 1973 Coup
The Guardian provides an interactive guide to the 1973 coup.
The House of the Spirits, 1993
The 1993 film version of the novel stars lots of big names, including Glenn Close, Winona Ryder, Meryl Streep, and even Antonio Banderas as the studly Pedro Tercero García.
Salvador Allende, 2006
A relatively recent independent movie about Salvador Allende's place in the history of Chile.
Original NY Times Review, May 9, 1985
In which the reviewer, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, grudgingly admits that The House of the Spirits is a pretty good book.
NY Times Review, May 12, 1985
A slightly more favorable review, written by Alexander Coleman, a professor of Latin American Literature at New York University.
Bill Moyers interviews Allende.
TED Talk with Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende talks about women and feminism.
Movie Trailer for The House of the Spirits
In all its cheesiness.
Interview with Isabel Allende
The BBC interviews Isabel Allende about The House of the Spirits (the second interview listed on this page).
Images of Chile
A slideshow of photos taken before and after the 1973 military coup in Chile. But be warned: some of these pictures may depict violence.
The movie poster for the film version of The House of the Spirits, which was released in 1993.