Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Marie Arana-Ward

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 893 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Marie Arana-Ward

SOURCE: "Coming to America," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 23, 1993, p. 6.

In the following review of The Infinite Plan, Arana-Ward argues that Allende's novel suffers from clichés, "numbing descriptions," and slight characterizations.

A promise is made in Isabel Allende's new novel, [The Infinite Plan] in the lure of its title and the shimmer of its opening tableau. A little boy urinates on a hillside at sunset, his back to the mountains, his eyes on the liquid gold of the Pacific Ocean. In the distance his family waits.

It is a moment he will never forget. At other times in his life, when confronted by the world's surprises, Gregory Reeves felt that wonder, that sensation of belonging to a splendid place where everything is possible and where each thing, from the most sublime to the most horrendous, has a reason for being, where nothing happens by chance and nothing is without purpose—a message his father, blazing with messianic fervor as a snake coiled about his feet, used to preach at the top of his lungs.

This is surely the most captivating passage of The Infinite Plan, filled with the imagery we have come to expect from Allende, the most successful among Latin American women writers—a Scheherazade whose beguiling stories have held us rapt in the exotic terrain of The House of the Spirits or Eva Luna.

But it is there that the similarity between this novel and anything Allende has ever done before ends. Unlike her previous four volumes, this story centers around the life of a male protagonist and proceeds uncertainly across a land Allende has come to know only in the most recent decade of her life: the United States of America.

The son of an eccentric itinerant preacher and a Russian immigrant woman, Gregory spends his childhood traversing the countryside in a dilapidated truck, watching his father fulminate against evil and prove the power of his bizarre religion by having a gigantic boa writhe about his body like a firehose. "Creation is governed according to the rules of The Infinite Plan," he rails. "Nothing happens by chance."

Gregory's demented mother hardly notices that her husband is carrying on with her best friend, the domineering fortuneteller from Odessa who travels with them—whose clown-red cheeks and "fiery hair were so intimidating that few dared turn her away for fear that she would turn them into a pillar of salt."

It is not until the group settles into a Los Angeles barrio that Gregory and his spirited sister, Judy, realize what family love is all about. In the sensuous, hospitable world of the Morales, their Latino neighbors, the Reeves children come of age. It is the only warmth they will ever know. Judy suffers at the hand of her increasingly psychotic father and grows up bitter and obese; Gregory is first raped, then sexually awakened, learning to calm his unruly libido under the wide skirts of his father's lover. Growing up with the Reeves children in the hard ganglands of L.A. are Carmen and Juan Jose Morales, whose lives trail and spiral theirs for the next 40 years.

Allende dutifully tracks the last half of the American century, leading her protagonist into the Vietnam War, the classrooms of Berkeley, a '60s infatuation with sex and drugs, and on to two angst-ridden yuppie marriages, two heartbreakingly troubled children, and a tortured confrontation with his past.

In all of this, we are only sporadically reminded of Allende's gifts as a storyteller. We plow endless, barren chapters looking for the richness of language that has graced her earlier novels. Sometimes we are rewarded, as in this scene, which takes Gregory into the jungles of Vietnam: "I am alone, at dawn, on the mountaintop. Below, through the milky mist, I see the bodies of my friends. Some that have rolled down the slopes lie like disjointed red dolls; others are ashen statues surprised by the eternity of death." More often, we encounter paragraphs that scroll across two or three pages at a time, not with the incantatory rhythms of Allende's Latin American novels, but with the clichés of an American reality that we know all too well.

Halfway through the numbing descriptions—("University education attempted to prepare students for a productive and docile existence, a project at odds with their increasing rebelliousness"), the awkward lurches of time ("As his soul soaked everything in like a sponge, his body developed and within a few weeks he grew out of boyhood and his expression became that of a contented man"), and the trite characterization ("Carmen was pure dynamite")—we realize that we do not know these people. We do not care if we do not.

But Allende cares. She lards her third-person narrative with Gregory's voice, straining to lend the story a more personal air. She teases us with the notion that there may be a reason her characters are so slight; they are alienated creatures, after all, incapable of love. And yet she forces them to the brink of love all the same.

There is something vaguely embarrassing about all this. As if the novelist had drawn her characters not from life but from the arid well of Monday night television, furnishing their worlds with predictable images and binding it all with a prose that betrays an existential boredom.

Allende is better than this. We know it. We cannot help but wish she had known it too.

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This section contains 893 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Marie Arana-Ward
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Critical Review by Marie Arana-Ward from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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