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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende

The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. ISBN: 0-06-017016-6

It's interesting that this book was originally written in Spanish, since it is mostly about Americans, people living in the United States, California, mostly. But of course, Isabel Allende writes in Spanish, regardless of her subject, “because it is for me a very organic process that I can only do in my language” (from the FAQ-type document under “Curiosities” on the author's website.)

Here's another quote from Allende's web site, which helps to explain this particular book, in my view. The question is “Where do you get your inspiration?” And the answer:

“I spend ten, twelve hours a day alone in a room writing. I don't talk to anybody; I don't answer the telephone. I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I'm creating a world that is fiction but that doesn't belong to me.”

A little later, she says:

“I allow the characters to live their own lives in the book. Often I have the feeling that I don't control them. The story goes in unexpected directions and my job is to write it down, not to force it into my previous ideas.”

That process is particularly evident in this book. It starts with a strange and itinerant family whose father is sort of secular evangelist, preaching his belief in “the infinite plan.” Eventually the very white family settles in the Los Angeles barrio, where they grow up side by side with the Hispanic subculture.

Gregory Reeves, the son, age 4 when the story begins, becomes the main character of the book, together with his closest lifelong friend, Carmen Morales. We follow him through his turbulent youth, the almost too trite to be true horrific experiences in Vietnam, and finally, his career as a rich, hot-shot lawyer, disastrous marriages, bankruptcy, and personal collapse, eventually carefully putting his life back together with the aid of his therapist.

None of this sounds on the surface, like the stuff of a great novel. But there is just something about Allende's prose, and her style of writing, that invests even the most prosaic events with a kind of special meaning. While reading this book, you have the feeling that you are experiencing a sweeping epic story, not just the humdrum lives of a few ordinary people.

Even though the story line seems simplistic, the prose is anything but, and the story anything but. I can promise you this, you'll never be bored while reading it. Even though periodically, throughout, we are suddenly and inexplicably reading Gregory's inner thoughts expressed in first person, while the rest of the book is told in third person narrative style. These interludes take some getting used to, especially since at first you're not even sure whose first person you're experiencing.

I would describe this as a flawed literary masterpiece, highly readable, and definitely recommended for anyone who has enjoyed any of Allende's other works, but a strange story indeed, strange in ways both wonderful and weird.


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