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Book Review: The Infinite Plan by Isabelle Allende

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“They traveled the roads and byways of the West, unhurriedly and with no set itinerary, changing their route according to the whim of the moment, the premonitory sign of a flock of birds, the lure of an unknown name.” The opening sentence of Isabelle Allende’s The Infinite Plan introduces, not only the saga of the Reeves family, but the lush and wandering plot of the novel.

The Infinite Plan focuses on the life of Gregory Reeves, the son of an itinerant artist and “Doctor in Divine Sciences” who preaches his theory of the Infinite Plan.

The early scenes of Gregory Reeves’ life, set during WWII, remind one of Steinbeck’s descriptions of a hardscrabble West. Allende’s focus is on the marginalized: the peripatetic Reeves family, the Mexican-American residents of L.A.’s barrios, an African-American soldier and his mother, the half-Vietnamese son of Reeves’ foster “brother.” The few middle-class white characters of The Infinite Plan occupy the margins of the plan, in an inversion of common media-portrayed norms.

While well-written overall, with engaging characters and Allende’s characteristically lyrical prose, The Infinite Plan begins rather slowly with a dense and somewhat meandering start. It feels almost as though once the Reeves family settle into their place in the barrio, the novel settles into its stride.

The major distraction for me – and the reason I had to start the book twice – arose from the structure of the novel. The Infinite Plan has two narrators, an omniscient observer presumed to be the author, and Gregory Reeves. The transitions between what is essentially a third person narration and Reeves’ first-hand account interrupted the narrative flow more than I would have liked.

Despite its shortcomings, The Infinite Plan has some compelling and well-drawn characters, particularly Olga, the gypsy-esque healer/charlatan who serves as an honorary aunt to the young Gregory; Carmen, Reeves’ childhood friend and sometime lover; and Gregory Reeves himself. The novel tracks Reeves from his very young years during which we see a timid and damaged boy, through the idealism of a young adulthood in the Berkeley of the late 1960’s, to jaded middle age in that jaded era of the 1980’s.

Allende handles her characters with compassion and honesty. While not shying away from the ugly (in physiology, character, or action), the tenderness the author has for her creations is evident throughout. We feel as much for Gregory the boy when he soils his pants in class on his first day of school as we do for Gregory the man as his ex-wife abandons their behaviorally challenged young son, leaving Reeves with the child and his failing law firm. Allende manages to show care for her characters while never absolving them of responsibility for their own actions. She shows cause and consequence without creating victims.

Though the plot and narration falter occasionally, The Infinite Plan provides valuable insights into the shaping of modern America and into the fears and desires that drive human choice. As such, the novel is worth the careful reading it requires.

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