Home Is Where the Heart Is

In this week's newsletter, we look at how Isabel Allende uses settings that might seem innocuous in order to dig deeper into a troubled narrator in The House of the Spirits, the March California Book Club selection,

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

At first, it seems clear where The House of the Spirits gets its title. The otherworldly influence of one of the characters, Clara del Valle Trueba, keeps spirits coming to the big Trueba home, and keeps them amused. The house serves as the setting for a good chunk of the novel, but perhaps another property in the book holds as much meaning. The family plot in Tres Marías, revamped and barely maintained by one of the narrators, Esteban Trueba, and later inhabited by a whole house of family and servants, is pivotal to understanding Esteban and the turmoil lurking beneath his cold demeanor.

The son of a sick single mother, Esteban is born poor. His only ties to high society are those from his mother’s name. Through this familial tie, he secures a deed to a mine in an attempt to find fortune. Although unsuccessful, he gains power and affluence. Once he secures the seemingly perfect wife, Clara, he works to keep appearances up.

Rather than make do with Tres Marías, he builds a magnificent, opulent mansion on the corner of the street. Materials are imported from Germany, Italy, and Austria, and bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers strive to make Esteban’s lavish dreams come true. Esteban wants those around him to see him and understand that he is a powerful man to be feared.

And yet, Clara’s spontaneity chips away at Esteban’s well-crafted armor. Bored by housekeeping and household tasks, she builds upon her connection with the spiritual world. Spirits abound within the house. She doesn’t stop at changing the spiritual nature of the house; she also changes physical aspects. She adds extra rooms and, eventually, an enchanted labyrinth spanning the interior of the big house on the corner. The facade of the house appears a picture of affluence, but within, Clara creates its weaknesses. Mirroring the mansion, Esteban’s outside factions look pristine, a picture of control, but within, his every move is attacked by self-doubt and anxiety.

Esteban wants others to take him seriously and assumes that having a wife whom others envy is part of that broader hope, but his love for Clara runs deeper than he imagines it will.

Esteban Trueba’s exaggerated love for her is without a doubt the most powerful emotion of his life, greater by far than his rage and pride. Half a century later, he still speaks of it with the same shudder and the same sense of urgency. In his old man’s bed, he continues to call her name until the day he dies.

Whether it’s love or obsession, Clara also represents all that Esteban cannot possess: he can buy designs, he can import materials for another big house, but he can’t buy spirits, he can’t mimic the rooms Clara built in her own unique style, and he can’t buy her love.

Meanwhile, the house at Tres Marías reflects Esteban’s grittier, truer side, the side not yet dusted off and placed in a well-tailored suit. Before Clara, and before his rise to fortune, he had been simply another man trying to gain wealth, making do with only bare necessities. Tres Marías was supposed to serve only as temporary housing. But it is within Tres Marías that he allows his dark thoughts and crimes to run rampant.

Allende skillfully uses the house as a metaphor for Esteban’s deterioration. When chinks begin to appear in his personality, chinks appear in the house. The family moves to Tres Marías, along with a wagonload of new and luxurious furnishings and a handful of servants. Tres Marías seems poised to become a replica of the mansion on the corner. More money than ever is devoted to patching holes and painting over the dust and grime there, but Esteban’s own abusive spirit lingers within its walls: it is still infested with rodents and dust.

Esteban may dress in finery to cover his weaknesses, but he remains the same Esteban from the mine, just trying to survive. His spirit remains close to Tres Marías, with its new furniture and household of servants but also its never-ending dirt and critters. His carefully tempered anger and facade crumble as the book progresses.

The big house on the corner built for show wastes away as Esteban loses his power. Soon, almost no difference remains between the mansion and his picture-perfect family and the dilapidated interior and exterior of Tres Marías.

Allende artfully depicts Esteban’s rise and fall through the state of his property. Home may be where the heart is, but Esteban’s houses reflect his decayed heart.•

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


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


Critic and author Bethanne Patrick (Life B: Overcoming Double Depression) writes about Allende’s breakthrough feminism. —Alta

house of the spirits, isabel allende
Atria Books


Alta Journal books editor David L. Ulin asks Allende about her writing process and philosophy. —Alta

tell the rest, lucy jane bledsoe
Akashic Books


Author Ivy Pochoda (These Women) reviews Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s eighth novel, Tell the Rest. —Alta

reyna granda
Imran Chaudhry


Prior CBC author Reyna Grande appeared on Forum to talk with host Alexis Madrigal and others about the surge in literature by undocumented immigrants. —KQED

delilah l beasley, negro trailblazers of california


Prior CBC author Dana Johnson writes about Delilah L. Beasley, the autodidact historian who researched the lost Black history of the American West, and the importance of storytelling. —Wildsam

cate blanchett, tar, another magazine
Harley Weir


Prior CBC author Maggie Nelson interviews Cate Blanchett. —AnOther Magazine

dr no, percival everett
Graywolf Press

“DR. NO”

For his most recent novel, forthcoming CBC author Percival Everett won the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which is given to “a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact.” —Kirkus

charlie kaufman
Getty Images


At the Writers Guild of America Awards, brilliant screenwriter and novelist Charlie Kaufman slammed Hollywood suits and said, “The world is a mess, the world is beautiful, the world is impossibly complicated, and we have the opportunity to explore that…. I have dropped the ball, wasted years seeking the approval of people with money.” —Deadline

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Elizabeth Casillas is Alta Journal’s editorial assistant.
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