Isabel Allende | Critical Review by Jean McNeil

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Isabel Allende.
This section contains 848 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Jean McNeil

SOURCE: "Gringo Inventions," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4710, July 9, 1993, p. 22.

In the review below, McNeil contends that Allende's treatment of themes in The Infinite Plan is predictable and simplistic, and that her female characters are stereotypical.

"What they most esteemed was the ability to tell a story", Isabel Allende writes in The Infinite Plan. She is referring, here, to the Vietnamese, but you feel she might also be thinking of her own readership. The Chilean writer has been praised for her narrative talents; her hugely successful novels, The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, had their grounding in the weaving of separate but interlocking narratives, and their compelling marriage of the opulent and the violent earned her the title "the female García Márquez".

This is the first time her fiction has made the journey from Santiago to San Francisco, and it is set in Allende's adopted home of California. The American hero of her book is Gregory Reeves, a white boy raised in the Hispanic barrio of Los Angeles, the son of an itinerant preacher and an emotionally absent mother. Gregory and his family travel from place to place in their ancient bus with a full complement of semigrotesques and fantastics (the staples of every Allende scenario, in the form here of a larger-than-life Russian woman and a boa constrictor), and with pamphlet copies of "The Infinite Plan", which contains the bogus creed of his self-styled visionary father. "They sold hope", Allende writes, and while they don't do brisk business, they are free from convention and Gregory is happy: "His childhood had been an overly long period of confusion and darkness, except for those years of travelling with his family."

The same could be said for the relationship between the first fifty or so pages of the novel and the next 300. As it opens, the writing seems lucid and assured, up to the challenge of a broad epic canvas. But after the Reeves family is bumped off the road by the father's illness and increasing dementia and hits the barrio, Allende seems to twirl off into Saga Land.

This is a novel with portentous themes. Generations come and go, cross-continental love is lost and reclaimed, children die and parents disown, and through all the sordidness in the lives documented here—incest, abortion and war—the Self is finally discovered. For this, and not true love, is the theme of the modern saga, and it is Gregory Reeves's quest. He lifts himself out of the barrio and to Berkeley, he moves from the hardship postwar years to the libertine 1960s, packs off to Vietnam, and does battle with a sense of desolation in the materialistic 1980s. His personal discovery, with the aid of psychiatry, takes up most of the second half of the novel.

Allende marches her characters cheerlessly through a Cultural Studies course on American social history of the past forty years; Hispanic migration, civil rights, free love, Californian health freakism, sexual identity, and finally business triumph, and the inevitable brooding question of "what is it all for"?

There are signs of intelligent analysis of this huge cultural landscape, glimpsed in the ground-swell of the plot, but they are swamped by the ever-increasing tide of adjectives. Passion is torrid and generosity surges and mother's bosoms are welcoming and children are nearly rescued from the claws of damnation. The increasing predictability of the novel's themes doesn't allay one's growing sense of dismay in scenes such as that in which Gregory experiences his "sexual awakening": "his blood boiled with inextinguishable fire…. With a shudder he caught Olga's scent…."

The Infinite Plan sounds promising in outline: an attempt by a Chilean woman writer to document the American Dream and to trace the path of one man's social and personal voyage through that supposedly classless society. But, even on her own terms, Allende fails to illuminate the complexities of the relationship between the individual and society's expectations. She defines the tension between the ethnic and white versions of success in the simplest possible way. "There are no such things as failure and success, Greg", his Hispanic friend Carmen says, "those are gringo inventions. You just live, that's all." Hand in hand with this antipathy for gringo ideas, goes an endorsement of conventional versions of femininity. Gregory's two wives are frigid WASP monsters, neurotic and cold, like the culture which produced them. Gregory's sister, by comparison, becomes "transfigured by tenderness" by a child and "began to kiss and nuzzle her like a bitch with her whelp". Carmen's big breasts are "bounteous charms", but, despite her resourcefulness, she withers without a man. Allende has also gone for the self-help optimism of the "you too can be happy/know thyself" school. The American Dream is treated with banal observations ("This is a country of winners, Greg; the one thing no-one can forgive is failure"). The theme and setting she has chosen in this novel seem to have neutralized her writerly abilities, which, while predictable to a degree, used to produce books imbued with a certain enchantment, and narrative drive, which this colourless novel sorely lacks.

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This section contains 848 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jean McNeil
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