cover image The Infinite Plan

The Infinite Plan

Isabel Allende. HarperCollins Publishers, $23 (380pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017016-5

A richly embroidered, ambitious tale, Allende's latest novel charts one man's spiritual progress against five decades of history and cultural change. Allende relies less on her customary magical realism (The House of the Spirits ) than on concrete, often graphic details in her first attempt to depict North American characters and settings. Greg Reeves, the son of an itinerant preacher who claims that life is governed by an infinite plan, spends the latter part of his childhood in the L.A. barrio where his family settled when their father became ill. His best friend and soul mate there is Carmen Morales, the daughter of a hospitable Latino family. The novel follows Greg and, to a lesser extent, Carmen through turbulent experiences as each searches for identity. Greg discovers several different kinds of racial discrimination in the crowded barrio; later, he taps into the social and sexual revolution in Berkeley; and he suffers through the crucible of Vietnam, from which he emerges determined to become rich and powerful no matter the cost in morality or peace of mind. He enters into disastrous marriages with two beautiful women, both of whom, he belatedly realizes, resemble his passive, remote mother; he also fails as a father. Allende's intensely imagined prose has clarity and dimension; she describes the exotic and the mundane with equal skill. The rambling, diffuse narrative nicely mirrors the random quality of life itself: Greg discovers that ``there is no infinite plan, just the strife of living.'' In portraying Greg as all too human and fallible, however, Allende risks making him an unsympathetic character. By the time he gains insight into the emotional factors that govern his personality (``at last I felt in control of my destiny . . . the most important thing was to search for my soul . . .''), readers may have tired of his self-destructive behavior. 100,000 first printing; $125,000 ad/promo; BOMC alternate ; author tour. (May)