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El Plan Infinito.

Chilean author Isabel Allende has built a reputation on her robust, larger-than-life female characters who capture our imaginations with their determination, vision, and absolute disregard for the limitations of circumstance. Hovering between the mundane and the magical, they bring into focus the paradoxes of everyday existence while at the same time transforming the banal into the mysterious and fantastic. Unfortunately, there is little of this in El plan infinito.

Gregory Reeves, protagonist of this plodding, cliche-ridden novel, is the son of a charismatic traveling preacher who hauls his rag-tag family from one town to another. Charles, the elder Reeves, has devised a philosophical system called El Plan Infinito, according to which nothing is gratuitous; everything that happens responds to a universal plan. In the hierarchy of beings that El Plan Infinito postulates, Charles Reeves occupies the highest position, which gives him absolute authority in the eyes of believers. Accompanied by his unstable wife Nora (a Russian Jew who has adopted the Bahai religion), their two children Gregory and Judy, and Nora's friend Olga (a fortune teller and medicine woman with a flair for show biz), Charles roams the southwestern United States mesmerizing crowds until illness forces him to settle down in Los Angeles.

Greg and Judy grow up in a Mexican neighborhood where they become street smart, learn Spanish, and make friends with the Moraleses, a Mexican-American family that offers them the kind of stability their own dysfunctional tribe could never provide. Greg develops an intimate, sisterly relationship with Carmen, the youngest Morales daughter, which will, quite predictably, lead to a failed love affair.

As Greg comes to realize that his father is a charlatan who has not only been carrying on with Olga, but also sexually abusing Judy, he begins to seek ways out of his sordid environment. Thanks to his friendship with Cyril, a communist elevator operator who conveniently bequeaths money to him, Greg enters Berkeley, where he becomes involved in, but not engulfed by, the free-wheeling drug-and-sex culture of the sixties. He marries a spoiled, vapid girl named Samantha and produces a daughter, but the relationship goes sour and Greg leaves for Vietnam. In the meantime, Carmen has had an abortion and been disowned by her father. After traveling to Mexico and Europe, she settles in Berkeley, where she becomes a successful jewelry designer.

Upon his return to the States, Greg becomes an attorney and marries a girl who is as vapid and self-centered as Samantha. Soon he is caught up in the materialism of the late seventies and eighties. After another child, another divorce, and a financial disaster brought about by his excessive spending, Greg enters psychoanalysis to try to sort out his life. Ming O'Brien, his Taiwanese-American therapist, tells him what we readers have known all along: Greg is attracted to weak people who drain him of his stamina, while offering no emotional support. With Ming's help he begins the recovery process that leads to a happy-ever-after ending.

Although Allende is a strong writer and does produce a few memorable passages, she never really manages to penetrate the psyches of her characters. Part of the problem is that she has set the story in the United States and seems to have relied almost exclusively on second-hand information. Countless tiny errors in detail reveal her unfamiliarity with her subject. From the corrupt, sex-craved preacher to Oriental math-wizard accountant who tries to keep Greg out of trouble, all of her characters are stereotypical. The Mexican-Americans are all either angelically kind or diabolically evil. They either appear miraculously, complete with Mariachi music, to help someone renovate a house or else they are sadistic, sodomitical gang members who abuse young boys in dark corners. Likewise, the Vietnamese villagers that Greg meets are all benign, generous rustics, while the white American women are uniformly dull and the children they produce are perverted.

Although at the beginning of the novel Olga exhibits some of the extraordinary magnetism we have come to expect of Allende's best characters, she drops out of the story for such long periods that we lose interest in her. Carmen also shows promise, but she is too much of a Mexican-American Princess Daisy (poor girl turned millionaire) to be very convincing.

They say that you can't tell a book by its cover, which in the case of El plan infinito turns out to be true. The cover features a gorgeous painting by Chilean artist Ruby Aranguiz. In this instance the cover is better than the book.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Organization of American States
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mujica, Barbara
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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