Isabel Allende | Patricia Hart

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 1,041 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Patricia Hart

SOURCE: A review of El plan infinito, in World Literature Today, Vol. 67, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 335-36.

Below, Hart discusses Allende's shift to a Mexican-American protagonist in El plan infinito and praises her characterization, imaginative prose, and humor.

All the exuberant strengths and endearing weaknesses of Isabel Allende's lively fictional style are in full evidence in her fourth novel, El plan infinito. Readers may struggle a bit to suspend disbelief at certain points, but the mosaic of outrageous anecdote, flamboyant and varied detail, and shrewd insight into the struggles of being human more than overcomes our skepticism. As ever, Allende spins a great yarn.

This time Allende sets her story mostly in the United States, and protagonism is shared by Gregory Reeves, the son of an itinerant preacher who grows up in a Hispanic barrio of Los Angeles and then goes on to practice poverty law in the Bay area, and Carmen Morales, his childhood friend, an irrepressible Mexican-American woman who becomes a famous jewelry designer. With Allende's own move to California, the choice of subject matter was probably inevitable, and the shifts that form undergoes to match this new content provide much to discuss.

Allende traces Reeves's and Morales's parental history, then follows the pair from childhood through their fifties, along the way sketching in the pertinent social history of the times. The Great Depression, the WPA, World War II, the atomic bomb, the jitterbug, flower power, the Vietnam era, hot tubs, and dressing for success replace one another like background slides to the narration. This is not the realism of an Edward Hopper, but rather the stylized, tongue-in-cheek kitsch of Andy Warhol portraits where the subject is instantly recognizable but distorted, remade with bright streaks of color and cartoonlike black outlines where halftones fall away.

With a nearly straight face, Allende insists that Reeves was roommate in the sixties to a lesbian pair who invented the concept of bra burning, that the hot tub fad took off when tubs remained in people's living rooms after the underwater birthing fad, and that in his teens Gregory went out to work as a "wetback." It would be unfair and stupid to expect from Allende the type of insights into the California of the sixties that we get from the fiction of Sara Davidson or Marilyn French, for example, and jingoistic even to suggest that these historical events are any less Allende's to tell than they are Mary McCarthy's or Rona Jaffe's. Neither does Allende apply her well-known magic feminism of previous works the way Tom Robbins did in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues to draw general conclusions about the state of being female in those places or times. Rather, the value in her perspective is that her characters are not mainstream but "other," and give insights from the margin, not from the overwhelming majority.

The stories that make up Allende's novel show evidence of months of hard work in the periodical library and perhaps years of listening to stories that interested and moved her. If an occasional detail rings false (for example, the rural Depression-era public flocking to pay $3 for Charles Reeves's charismatic show—one suspects that in the thirties, ten cents might have been more than most of the public had to spare), most of the story is nevertheless plausible or at least possible. Much of the ostensibly "retold" biography of Gregory Reeves has that improved, facile quality of oft-repeated family mythology; but while this is true, the text ironically revels in the fact. For example, Reeves likes to show a "snakebite" scar to his listeners when telling how he was born again: "Tantas veces repitió la historia que acabó creyéndola, y no se acorbada que adquirió la cicatriz en una caída de bicicleta."

The portrait of Carmen Morales is excellently drawn, her struggle is fascinating, and she generates the best insights in the book. For example, when a male friend offers to accompany her on an errand in an unsafe area, she reflects: "Lo que para [un hombre] era asunto banal que no merecía un segundo pensamiento, para ella era un riesgo y requería cálculos y estrategias. Algo tan simple como un paseo al campo en una mujer podía considerarse una provocación, un llamado al desastre." El plan infinito cannot match a Sandra Cisneros for the collection of vivid, exact detail of what it is like to be female and chicana. However, Carmen's imagination in the face of adversity and her determination to succeed in a hostile environment are both believable and moving as Allende tells them.

Gregory Reeves's character is obviously just as dear to the author, and it is to her credit that she delves with such nonjudgmental enthusiasm into the male psyche. However, his transformation through love at the end of the novel is a bit abrupt; the love story that "saves" him is not told and thus is not totally comprehensible to the reader, though his is obviously a renaissance that Allende cares greatly to tell. The reader may lose patience with Gregory during his anxiety attacks or his marital disasters, because of what seems at times self-pity. His ex-wives seem caricatures, and his therapy is a bit boring. It is our reaction to Gregory that counts, not his reaction to himself, and unfortunately we hear a bit too much of the latter.

However, if one narrative stream runs dry, there is always another that rushes vividly along. Allende charms with sudden throwaway details, such as a sermon by the aging Padre Larraguibel describing the average guardian angel: "Medía exactamente treinta y tres centímetros, el número de años de la vida terrestre de cristo, andaba desnudo y era de falsedad absoluta que tuviera alas, volaba a propulsión a chorro, sistema de navegación divina menos elegante pero mucho más lógico que las alas de pájaro descritas en los textos sagrados."

Minor criticisms aside, here, as in her other novels, Isabel Allende shows herself to be an author with a marvelous ability to get inside the skins of a variety of characters, and she unfailingly writes with humor and an unpretentious, imaginative prose that is full of linguistic rewards and devoid of clichés, a prose kneaded and formed into myriad delightful new shapes as if it were made from Eva Luna's magic material universal.

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This section contains 1,041 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Patricia Hart
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