The Invisible Mountain is a family saga, following the lives of three generations of Uruguayan women--Pajarita, Eva, and Salomé--through most of the 20th century. It’s an enjoyable book; nevertheless, it’s quite derivative of Allende’s House of the Spirits (among others), and Allende’s work is the better book.
Some SPOILERS follow.
Like House of the Spirits, The Invisible Mountain features a matriarch with ties to mysticism and magical realism, who after a brief courtship enters a problematic marriage; a conservative patriarch who’s on occasion violently abusive but ultimately portrayed as redeemable; their daughter, who becomes estranged from her father, carries on a decades-long forbidden love affair, and marries someone from the opposite end of the social spectrum; and her daughter, who gets involved with a leftist movement, becomes a political prisoner, is raped and tortured, and as a result gets pregnant with a daughter whose father she can’t identify. Psychological trauma causes Clara, in House of the Spirits, to become temporarily mute; here, Eva goes temporarily lame. Both also respond to a beating from the family patriarch by not speaking to him for years. In both books, a brother flees to the United States to escape an oppressive regime. And so on.
In all fairness, though, not only do many details diverge, but there are significant differences between the books. While House of the Spirits focuses on a wealthy, landowning family, the Firielli clan are regular, working-class people. The grandfather and the brothers get much less page time in The Invisible Mountain. This book ventures more beyond national boundaries, primarily into Argentina, and there’s less magical realism, which is confined to Pajarita’s early chapters. And the point-of-view here is limited strictly to the three women, each in her own section, which is perhaps more disciplined than House of the Spirits, but has the effect of relegating each prior protagonist to a minor character as the story shifts to her daughter.
As for this book’s merits: it tells a good, interesting story. Pajarita’s tale felt a bit bland, but Eva’s and Salomé’s more than make up for that. Both are vivid, engaging and believable characters, and their stories are compelling. There are also some colorful background characters. Given Uruguay’s status as the first Latin American country to recognize same-sex unions, the LGBT representation is particularly appropriate here (although I didn’t think much of the trans character him/herself; with the sex change comes a personality morph so complete it’s baffling). De Robertis does a good job with complex family relationships; there are secrets the characters never share and sometimes they have trouble connecting with one another, but they still manage to muddle through in a realistic way.
I am surprised to find that so many reviewers disliked all the male characters. Several seemed perfectly decent to me; both the men and women have virtues and flaws. Furthermore, the unfortunate truth is that people who grow up in troubled families are more likely to find themselves in troubled situations as adults, so it’s quite realistic that multiple men in the book commit acts of abuse.
At any rate, this book does a decent job with setting the cultural scene. Like House of the Spirits, it avoids going into much detail with history, but gives enough to make sense of the story in its wider context. The writing is competent, although, as in De Robertis’s other novel, Perla, it can become rather florid for my taste. For instance, two of the women fantasize about disappearing into words, in passages like this: “She wanted to do more than read: she wanted to shrink and crawl into its words, move between its letters, dig for secrets in the attic of an A, climb a Y into its branches and listen to its dreams, slide along an S toward its hot and hidden source, enter an O and taste the mad brightness or bright madness at its core....” (If you can take that passage, you and this book will get along wonderfully.) Fortunately, there’s a decent amount of dialogue to keep this sort of thing from going on too long.
I debated whether to round my star rating up or down, but ultimately decided to go up: this is a compelling story with engaging protagonists, and I enjoyed it. I would have liked it more had it been less derivative--but House of the Spirits is such a fantastic book that you can’t go too far wrong with that as the source material.