Unusual Characters Pursue Their Dreams

THE Infinite Plan" is Isabel Allende's fifth novel and her first to be set in the United States, where she now lives. The Chilean-born journalist and author received considerable attention for her previous books, "The House of the Spirits," "Of Love and Shadows," "Eva Luna," and "The Stories of Eva Luna," which found their way onto the bestseller lists.

Allende writes with passion and conviction, but her work has yet to demonstrate the consistent level of originality and craftsmanship that distinguishes consummate artist from aspiring author.

Her new novel, as its title suggests, is ambitious in scope, but merely competent in execution: a large canvas, filled with characters, action, and historical scenery that gives the impression of having been painted boldly and rather hurriedly.

Allende has wisely chosen an outstandingly atypical man to be the prototypically American hero of her story. The reader first meets Gregory Reeves as a little boy in the 1940s, traveling the country with his close-knit, eccentric family headed by his father, Charles Reeves, a self-styled artist and charismatic preacher who offers his audiences insights into the "divine plan."

Along with little Gregory and his older sister, Judy, this itinerant menage includes two women: Charles Reeves's wife, Nora, a Russian Jewish immigrant with a passion for opera and a commitment to the tolerant teachings of the Bahai faith, and Nora's friend - and boisterous opposite - Olga, who supplements the family income working as a fortuneteller.

When Charles falls ill, the family road-show grinds to a halt in the barrio of East Los Angeles. The blonde, blue-eyed Reeves children grow up in this environment, warmly accepted by some, taunted and ostracized by others. Gregory learns to avoid - and when necessary face down - trouble. He also makes a friend for life in a neighborhood girl named Carmen.

The novel follows Gregory, Carmen, and Gregory's sister, Judy, through their teens and into their 50s. The focus is primarily on Gregory, who also narrates alternate sections of the story, but Carmen receives a sizable share of the attention as well.

Gregory manages to make his way to college and law school, only to be catapulted into the Vietnam War and unsought heroism. Judy endures bad husbands who leave her with children she cherishes. Carmen survives the stigma of an unwanted pregnancy and the dangers of an illegal abortion to become a compassionate artist, mother, and woman.

Gregory flounders for decades, dreaming of social justice in the 1960s, trying to forget the horrors of war in his blind pursuit of money and power in the early 1980s, failing to understand himself until he is well into his 40s. His inner conflicts are believably portrayed, with the unspoken but implicit suggestion that this one man's difficulties and protracted growing pains reflect the vicissitudes of his times and places.

Allende treads a fine line between writing expressively and resorting to overblown cliches: "... he had made himself a man," she writes of Gregory, "silently enduring repeated bumps and knocks along the way, faithful to the national myth of the independent, proud, and free individual. He considered himself a good citizen willing to pay his taxes and defend his country, but somewhere he had fallen into an insidious trap, and instead of living the expected reward he was still slogging through a swamp."

Admirers of Allende's earlier work may be a little disappointed by her lack of finesse in this one, but will still find much to engage mind and heart alike.

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