The Last Word

The March California Book Club selection, The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, makes women primary.

isabel allende, the house of the spirits, novel, fiction, california book club, bethanne patrick
Chris Hardy

One of the best books published in the past decade has to be Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. It provides a shocking portrait of a near-quarter-century marriage through dual narratives—first from the husband’s perspective, then the wife’s. By allowing that wife, Mathilde, to tell her own version of events second, Groff, in effect, gives a woman the last word.

Don’t worry. This is an essay about The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende. You’re reading the right piece. But Groff’s novel has important and perhaps even direct ties to Allende’s, which has to be one of the best books published in the past 50 years. Released in 1982 after many rejections, The House of the Spirits arrived on English-speaking shores in 1985 to great and lasting acclaim, even if its revolutionary techniques have, of late, been eclipsed by book-banning advocates who can’t get past Allende’s blunt descriptions of male sexual aggression.

Forty years after its publication, The House of the Spirits rewards rereading—and deserves reconsideration. Like her younger colleague Groff, Allende possesses the conviction that those who don’t have the power accorded to cishet men in many cultures nevertheless remain fully human. There are ways to communicate that conviction without ever stating it. And, as Groff may have learned from Allende, giving a woman the last word reminds us all of the different kinds of power women and femmes possess, a power less about physicality and more about narrative control.

If you’ve read The House of the Spirits before, you may remember one of its most memorable characters, a young woman who appears early in the story, Rosa the Beautiful, whose green hair and bluish skin make her look like a mermaid. Her supernatural presence seems to serve as a reminder of how magical and unknowable women are to men; however, Rosa doesn’t stay around long; she’s killed by poison intended for her father. Like all of the female characters, even her plainer counterparts, she’s subject to the crosscurrents of violence among the men in her world.

But we learn about Rosa the Beautiful through the diary of her sister, Clara del Valle, and we learn about Clara through the narration of her granddaughter, Alba. In 2023, we’re accustomed to talking about who gets to tell a story and why the ability to tell a story holds so much power. But in the early 1980s, when Allende first published her work, the voices of women, and especially women of color, were much less common. One of the reasons The House of the Spirits received so many rejections was that some Spanish-language publishing houses believed Allende’s work was too derivative of the work of her male colleagues, like García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Cortázar; they completely ignored her development of the tradition in which so many of those magical realists were writing.

Allende’s contribution was not to change what happens during the years her fictional Trueba family live. Rather, she changed who gives us their perspective on those years. It sounds so simple: let women speak. Yet even all of these decades later, we know that too many voices of women and members of other marginalized communities aren’t heard, can’t be heard, aren’t allowed to be heard. Clara and Alba tell us what they see and experience. They don’t add political commentary because they were not taught about politics. The violence and barbarism they see, even Clara’s description of the dog Barrabás, come to modern readers with a certain amount of innocence and naïveté, which allows Allende to underscore the truth of their observations.

Allende herself has said that fiction allows everything, including “testimony, chronicle, essay, fantasy, legend, poetry and other devices,” as writers seek to “decode the mysteries of our world and discover our true identity.” One of the surest ways to discover identity is to speak with our own voices, but sometimes, speaking our own truth takes longer—Groff’s Mathilde, married to Lotto, finds that out in the course of their relationship. And sometimes, as Clara and Alba might recognize today, it takes more than a lifetime to understand what that truth is.

The House of the Spirits reckons with and even provides a measure of forgiveness that some women will refuse: Alba gives her troubled grandfather Esteban a role in her closing. That doesn’t mean Allende rejects the idea of women telling the story. Alba’s choice can be interpreted as one of deep compassion. The contemporary reader of this surprising novel might think of the experience as that of dreaming by an open window, listening to the sounds of women, past and future, processing their family histories: sometimes the scratching of a pen nib, sometimes a resigned sigh, a dark laugh, or even a quiet sob.•

Join us on Zoom on Thursday, March 16, at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Allende will join CBC host John Freeman to discuss The House of the Spirits. Please drop by the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow book club members know your thoughts about the novel. Register here for the event.


Bethanne Patrick is a writer, a book critic, and an author who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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