The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los Espíritus) marked Isabel Allende's novelistic debut and the advent of her status as an internationally best-selling author. After spending many years as a journalist, television, and theater writer in Chile and Venezuela, Allende fell into sync with the intelligent, mystical style of fiction writing that would ultimately guide her career. Upon learning that her 99-year-old grandfather was on his deathbed in Chile and unable to return to his side because of her status as a political exile, Allende began writing him what she has called "a spiritual letter." According to Allende, she entered a trance while writing and let her imagination consume her:
I wrote the first sentence in trance: Barrabas came to us by sea. Who was Barrabas, why did he come by sea? I didn't have the foggiest idea, but I continued writing like a maniac until dawn, when exhaustion defeated me and I crawled to my bed.
- What were you doing? my husband mumbled.
- Magic, I answered.
And indeed, magic it was. The following evening after dinner, again I locked myself in the kitchen to write. I wrote every night, oblivious to the fact that my grandfather had died. The text grew like a gigantic organism with many tentacles and by the end of the year I had 500 pages on the kitchen counter. It didn't look like a letter anymore.
This work of love and inspiration became the manuscript for The House of the Spirits, which was published just a year later in 1982 in Spain, and released in English in 1985. The novel was received with almost universal enthusiasm, and Allende knew she had found her true calling as a storyteller. The New York Times' Alexander Coleman credited Allende with "[becoming] the first woman to join what has heretofore been an exclusive male club of Latin American novelists." Vogue's Cathleen Medwick called the novel "an exotic vision - a brilliant, impassioned epic - and a personal coup for the young journalist who 'had to write it.'" Critics' primary criticism of the novel is often that it is very similar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Like much of Allende's writing, both fictional and non-fictional, the stories found in The House of the Spirits are drawn from her own personal and family history. The fact that she draws inspiration from a source so influenced by political turmoil and violence helps account for her stories' careful intermingling of suffering and joy. She once said: "With relatives like mine I don't need to use my imagination, they alone provide all the material I need for my novels. Their stories are like an on-going soap opera. Many of my relatives have been the models for the characters in my books, like my grandparents, who became Esteban Trueba and Clara del Valle in The House of the Spirits." On another occasion, she reminded her readers that she was far from alone in gleaning the seeds of her ideas from her personal experiences and collective family memory: "all fiction is ultimately autobiographical. I write about love and violence, about death and redemption, about strong women and absent fathers, about survival. Most of my characters are outsiders, people who are not sheltered by the society, who are unconventional, irreverent, defiant." Since its original release over two decades ago, The House of the Spirits has become an international classic. In 1993 it was made into a movie directed by Bille August, with an all-star cast including Meryl Streep as Clara, Jeremy Irons as Esteban Trueba, Vanessa Redgrave as Nívea, Glenn Close as Férula, Antonio Banderas as Pedro Tercero García, and Winona Ryder as Blanca.