The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Red convertibles and whiteflies: 'The Infinite Plan' - Isabel Allende: HarperCollins, 14.99
Saturday 28 August 1993
Isabel Allende was born in Chile. Her previous books include The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna. The Infinite Plan is set in the United States, in the Hispanic ghetto of downtown Los Angeles. But the pageantry of her style has survived the journey well; this book is a unique take on the seething eccentricities of California.
When Gregory Reeves first saw Samantha Ernst she was on the tennis court; she was playing, and he was trimming the shrubbery. One of his jobs was supervising the dining room in a women's dormitory across from where he lived. Two cooks prepared the food, and Gregory oversaw a crew of five students who served the meals and washed dishes, a position much to be envied since it gave him free access to the building and to the girls. In his off-hours, he worked as a gardener. Except for cutting grass and pulling weeds, he knew nothing at all about plants when he began, but he had a good teacher, a ferocious-looking but tender-hearted Romanian named Balcescu, who shaved his head and then rubbed his scalp to a rosy glow with a scrap of felt. He spoke a dizzying melange of languages and loved flowers as he loved himself. In his country he had been a border guard, but the moment the opportunity presented itself, he capitalised on his knowledge of the terrain and escaped; after wandering a long while he had entered the United States from Canada, on foot, with no money, no papers, and two words in English: 'money' and 'freedom'. Convinced that that was what America was all about, he made little effort to enlarge his vocabulary and got along principally through mime. He taught Gregory how to battle worms, whiteflies, slugs, ants, and other enemies of vegetation, and to fertilise, graft, and transplant. More than work, those hours in the open air were a pleasant pastime, and Gregory learned to decipher his boss's instructions by constant exercise of intuition. The day he was trimming the hedge, one of the tennis players caught his eye; he stood watching a few minutes, not so much because of the girl's looks, which off the court might not have warranted a second glance, as for her precision as an athlete. She had firm muscles, quick legs, a long face with aristocratic bones, short hair, and the slightly earth-coloured tan of people who are always in the sun. Gregory was attracted by her animal health and agility; he waited until she finished the match and then stationed himself at the gate to the court to wait for her. He could not think what to say, however, and when she walked by with her racket over her shoulder and her skin glistening with sweat, he still could think of nothing clever to say. He followed her far enough to see her get into an expensive sports car. That night, in a tone of studied indifference, he told Timothy Duane about her.
'You wouldn't be so stupid as to fall in love, Greg.'
'Of course not. I like her, that's all.'
'She doesn't live in the dormitory?'
'I don't think so. I've never seen her there.'
'Too bad. For once, the key would have been of some use.'
'She doesn't look like a student; she has a red convertible.'
'She may be the wife of some executive.'
'I don't think she's married.'
'Then she's a whore.'
'When have you seen whores playing tennis, Tim? They work at night and sleep during the daytime. I don't know how to talk to a girl like that - she's very different from the girls I've known.'
'Well, don't talk. Invite her to play tennis.'
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