THE INFINITE PLAN.
382 pages. $23.
In her new novel, renowned Chilean author Isabel Allende writes about the United States and American characters for the first time. She charts an American odyssey from the 1940s to the 1980s in the turbulent life of Gregory Reeves, a high-living corporate lawyer who abandons his pursuit of material success to represent impoverished minority clients.
Using the imaginative gifts and vivid observations that gave form to the austere and eccentric Chilean family of "The House of the Spirits" and the sultry Venezuelan backwater of Agua Santa in "Eva Luna," Ms. Allende creates in "The Infinite Plan" a California of visionary hopes and wacky solutions, "a place where even today every possible formula for avoiding the anguish of living proliferates."
Ms. Allende was a journalist before she became a novelist, and her depiction of California, where she now lives, is convincing and absorbing. But her decision to present this rambling, free-wheeling adventure story as the result of conversations between herself and Gregory results in a constraining self-consciousness.
Gregory is the child of the unlikely union between an egoistic lay preacher and his emotionally distant wife. Charles Reeves travels through California, setting up camp meetings where he bores audiences with his sermons and impresses them with his enormous boa constrictor, which he wraps around himself to illustrate the harmony of the universe.
Charles is a hypocrite whose life is a bitter parody of his preaching. His early death leaves his family impoverished, with the divided legacy of his lofty ideals and abusive acts.
The Reeveses are taken in by a Mexican immigrant, Pedro Morales, who is a follower of Charles. Gregory and his sister grow up in the Los Angeles barrio, blond, blue-eyed gringos in this foreign city within a city. They find familial affection in the Morales household, and are befriended by the Morales children, Juan Jose and Carmen. In the barrio, Gregory is preyed upon by gangs and absorbs the realities of racism and discrimination.
In the '60s, Gregory acquires a Berkeley education and serves a traumatizing tour of duty in Vietnam. His surrogate brother, Juan Jose, is blown away by snipers, but Gregory returns, a guilty survivor determined to prove himself by becoming rich and powerful. Thus begins his career as a corporate lawyer. He marries and divorces two remote, self-centered women who resemble his mother, and becomes an obsessive philanderer and a neglectful father -- like his own.
Despite the rich descriptions of Gregory's adventures, he never truly comes alive as a character. He is like a cipher onto which Ms. Allende has grafted nearly five decades of American life, a "type" who is frequentlyundergoing metamorphosis rather than a fully realized individual.
Part of the problem is that the sections in the novel in which Gregory speaks directly to the reader are not differentiated enough from Ms. Allende's narrative voice; he sounds just like her. His personality isn't introspective, so his self-examinations seem forced. The novel might be more successful without the intrusions of Gregory's voice.
It is Carmen Morales, Gregory's soul mate and alter ego, who emerges as the novel's most vivid personality. She is the more typical Allende character, an independent and resourceful woman who overcomes adversity and ignores the fashions of the times to develop her individual style. Carmen, with her tough-minded sense of reality and ability to land on her feet, is zTC more memorable and fascinating than the self-deluded, distracted and unhappy Gregory.
"He never worried about the future; he was too busy trying to shape the present," Ms. Allende writes of Gregory. Carmen considers how "men and women live in the same time and space but in different dimensions. . . . She lived looking back over her shoulder, watching for real and imagined dangers, always on the defensive, working twice as hard as any man for half the reward."
Fate does not appear in this novel as a mythic presence, as it does in Ms. Allende's previous fiction, where it seems to shape the lives of the characters in ways they can scarcely foresee but cannot resist.
She allows for the possibility -- so quintessentially American -- that people can influence the course of their lives. Individual destiny is compared to "a faded map that's hard to read and that's why we wander around so and sometimes get lost."
At times grim, romantic and ironic, "The Infinite Plan" energetically depicts the chaos of life. It is an incisive compendium of American culture, the family, and war and love between the sexes.
Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.