Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Linda Simon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 826 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Linda Simon

Critical Review by Linda Simon

SOURCE: "The Odyssey of an Evangelist's Son," in The Wall Street Journal, May 24, 1993, p. A8.

Simon is an American biographer who has written works on such figures as Gertrude Stein and Thornton Wilder. In the review below, she argues that The Infinite Plan is "ethically diverse," but "not deeply felt."

Isabel Allende was working as a journalist in her native Chile—writing news and feature articles, horoscopes and a lonely-hearts column—when, as she tells it, she met the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda for lunch. Neruda, who had read her pieces, gave her some advice: "You are a horrible journalist," he told her. "But—you are a wonderful story-teller! You have the imagination of a great writer."

Inspired by Neruda's comment, Ms. Allende began the manuscript that became her first novel, published here in 1985 as The House of the Spirits. Two novels and a collection of stories soon followed, earning Ms. Allende acclaim both for her talent as a storyteller and, in some quarters, for the political views that inform her fiction. "I want to tell readers about my country," she once told an interviewer. "I want to tell them about torture chambers, about politics, about people who starve to death, and about people who sell themselves as slaves because they have no food."

The Infinite Plan, Ms. Allende's latest novel, does not have this agenda. Unlike her previous fiction, the book is set not in Latin America but in Southern California, where she now lives. Southern California has problems, but fascist politics, systematic rape of women and right-wing military coups are not among them—unfortunately for Ms. Allende. "I like plots, rich plots, something happening all the time," she has admitted. "I need people to be raped and beheaded."

The Infinite Plan is packed with things happening all the time, but they do not help Ms. Allende to make the political critique that she has made before, nor to create the kind of urgency and tension that animated her previous works. Instead, she brings us the overlong odyssey of Gregory Reeves from the time he is four years old, near the end of World War II, to the present.

Gregory is the son of evangelist Charles Reeves, who travels across the country proclaiming The Infinite Plan. "Nothing happens by chance," he tells his incredulous listeners, who are trying to make sense of their misfortune and poverty. Everything will end in goodness, designed by a Supreme Intelligence.

Reeves dominates his family—his wife, Nora, a taciturn Russian immigrant who prefers Bahai theology to her husband's, and his children, Gregory and Judy. The household also includes Olga, who, like Nora, is from Odessa. She lives with the family—perhaps as Charles's lover—bringing her skills as a fortuneteller and healer to critical moments of the plot. Through Olga, Ms. Allende enters the world of magical realism, a worn signpost of much contemporary Latin American fiction.

Then, suddenly, Charles dies and the Reeveses find themselves in a Hispanic community of Los Angeles. They are befriended by the Morales family: Pedro, the proud patriarch and conscience of the community; Inmaculada, a pillar of strength and warmth; and their two children. At this point, Ms. Allende's aim becomes unhappily clear: to contrast the integrity of the Morales family with the vacuous materialism of American culture.

Ms. Allende uses Gregory Reeves to show us just how far a man can sink in a society that values money above all things. But since he is shallow and self-centered, he is incapable of offering anything but the most superficial observations about his life, a serious flaw in a character who narrates part of the book. "It took me an eternity … to learn that the more I accumulated the more vulnerable I was, because I live in a world where the opposite message is drummed into us," he informs us. It is difficult to maintain interest in a selfish man who speaks in cliches.

In focusing her story on Gregory, Ms. Allende has backed herself into an airless corner from which she sometimes emerges with vivid descriptions. Olga, warm, wise and complex, is the kind of character whose aphorisms seem generated by authentic experience.

By the end of the book, Gregory has suffered two failed marriages and sired two neglected and deeply disturbed children. Ms. Allende would like us to believe that he then achieves an epiphany with the help of an Asian-American psychiatrist. But his insights are hardly astounding. Referring to his failure with his children, he concludes, "I used money as compensation for the affection I didn't know how to give. A poor substitute."

The Infinite Plan is ethnically diverse and morally earnest, but it is not deeply felt. Ms. Allende incorporates into the tale too many details—incest, for example, and canned scenes of Vietnam—that are merely nods to trendy issues. When Neruda advised her to tell stories, surely he meant her stories, not thin translations from another culture. She has told her stories before; one hopes she will do it again.

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This section contains 826 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Linda Simon
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