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Saving the World: A Novelby Julia Alvarez
Synopses & Reviews
Julia Alvarez's resplendent new novel takes us into the worlds of two women swept up in campaigns against the scourges of their day. Alma Huebner, a Latin American novelist transplanted to the United States, is writing another of her bestselling family sagas. Her husband works for a humanitarian organization dedicated to health and prosperity in developing countries. He wants her to go with him, but she demurs. She must finish her newest novel.
In truth, Alma is sidetracked by the story of a much earlier idealist, Francisco Xavier Balmis, who in 1803 undertook to vaccinate the populations of Spain's American colonies against smallpox. To do this, he needed living "carriers" of the vaccine. Enter Isabel Sendales y Gómez, the rectoress of La Casa de Expositós. Isabel selects twenty-two orphan boys to be the carriers and joins them on the voyage. Her bravery inspires a very different novel from Alma.
A brilliant novel-within-a-novel, Saving the World pits ambition against altruism — and, in the process, tells the radiant stories of two courageous women.
"In Alvarez's appealingly earnest fifth novel (after A Cafecito Story), two women living two centuries apart each face 'a crisis of the soul' when their fates are tied to idealistic men whose commitments to medical humanitarian missions end in disillusionment. Alma Heubner's husband, Richard, goes to the Dominican Republic to help eradicate AIDS, while Alma, a bestselling Latina writer, stays at home in Vermont to work on a story about a real, ill-fated 19th-century expedition chaperoned by Doña Isabel Sendales y Gómez, the spinster director of a Spanish orphanage who agrees to vaccinate 20 of her charges with cowpox and bring them from Spain to Central America to prevent future smallpox epidemics. While the leader of the anti-smallpox expedition, Dr. Francisco Balmis, and Richard see their missions collapse in defeat, Doña Isabel and Alma surmount their personal depressions to find inner strength. Alvarez depicts her two heroines with insightful empathy and creates vivid supporting characters. But her effort to find resonating similarities between the intertwined plots sometimes feels contrived, and the details of Doña Isabel's odyssey slow the momentum. The narrative culminates in a compelling scene in which greed and ineptitude trump idealism, dramatizing the question of whether the means are ever justified by the ends." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Julia Alvarez isn't afraid to ask hard questions. 'Saving the World,' as the title suggests, confronts one that's troubled every great religion: how to deal with social inequity. How can a person of sensitivity and conscience justify being one of 'the lucky ones,' as Alvarez puts it, when so many people elsewhere in the world haven't got the means to live, let alone 'to be a human being'? Who can... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) be saved, and how? Alma Rodriguez Huebner, the heroine of this novel, is a writer without a story. Drowning in midlife depression, she's years behind on a book she's unable to write, and she's struggling to meet the demands of increasingly dependent but distant parents. The bonds of friendship and marriage seem more tenuous to her by the day. Readers' own politics will probably determine whether Alma sounds like a troubled person of principle or a whiny bore; she seems to feel that guilt is a sine qua non of American citizenship, but she's articulate about it. She realizes how much of her persona has been formed by meeting or rejecting others' expectations. But self-knowledge is not enough to make life meaningful for her. She longs for the comfort and certainty of religious faith enjoyed by her elderly friend Helen, but as an agnostic that door is closed to her. Her only salvation may lie in her identity as a writer. And so she lets her husband go alone on an altruistic mission to the Dominican Republic, the homeland that she left 40 years before, and she stays behind in an effort to rediscover herself. While he's gone, Alma finds her story — and her salvation — in a little-known but staggering historical event: the Royal Expedition of the Vaccine. In 1803 Don Francisco Balmis, with the blessing of the King of Spain, undertook to save the world from the scourge of smallpox. To this end, he sought out Dona Isabel, the rectoress of an orphanage, herself disfigured by the disease. A few years before, an English doctor named Jenner had discovered that milkmaids who contracted a harmless disease called cowpox became immune to the deadly and disfiguring smallpox. Don Francisco needed 22 young boys to serve as live carriers of the cowpox virus to bring salvation from the pox to the Spanish colonies across the sea. Dona Isabel, at once terrified and intrigued — and living a life as limited as Alma finds hers — agreed to allow the boys to go, but only if she went, too. Alvarez — a Dominican American herself, and married to a physician — handles this double-stranded narrative deftly. The historical part of the story is excellent, a mini-novel unto itself. Beyond its own virtues, though, it serves both to balance the pacing of the modern story and to echo its theme. The early part of the modern story occasionally seems slow, but by alternating it with the historical strand, Alvarez keeps the book engrossing. And midway through, Alma's life takes a turn as life-changing as Dona Isabel's decision to board the ship with her 22 foster sons. Alma's husband works for a humanitarian enterprise called Help International, which may be hand-in-glove with Big Pharma, testing an AIDS vaccine in the Third World. Altruism tempered by self-interest may still be altruism, but what the local village mayor terms 'dangerous elements' (local young men dissatisfied with their limited prospects) don't see it that way. Alma gets a call; the 'green center' that her husband established has been taken over by local zealots, and her husband is a hostage. Alma flies at once to the Dominican Republic and into the center of a maelstrom of conflicting motives, actions and reactions that will change her life forever. This story could easily have been a black-and-white polemic, but isn't. It's subtle, nuanced and deeply compassionate; it acknowledges the basic messiness of life, yet its bleakness is redeemed by the humanity of the characters, virtually all of whom are deeply troubled in one way or another. If Alvarez doesn't ask easy questions, she doesn't settle for easy answers, either. She steadfastly avoids religion in the modern story, while acknowledging it, of necessity, in the historical narrative (and acknowledging, too, that religion is no more pure than commerce). 'Saving The World' depicts the need to belong to something greater and more enduring than ourselves, whether that something be a social commitment, a world-saving expedition or a book. Whether we respond to the troubling question of inequality from a religious perspective (it's not an accident that 'Alma' is the Spanish word for 'soul') or a secular one — Alvarez's search for that answer is a remarkable examination of conscience. Diana Gabaldon is the author of a series of historical novels, including 'Outlander' and 'A Breath of Snow and Ashes.'" Reviewed by Diana Gabaldon, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"In this cleverly structured and seductive page-turner, Alvarez uses romance and suspense to leaven probing inquiries into plagues, poverty, and politics; altruism and self-aggrandizement; good intentions gone wrong; and the way stories are told." Booklist
"Alvarez's generosity of vision compensates for the not-altogether-convincing central conceit of her sixth novel." Kirkus Reviews
"Alvarez's descriptions of nature and character are both naturalistic and poetic, creating a psychological novel-within-a-novel that is intense and riveting." Library Journal
Latina novelist Alma Huebner is suffering from writer's block and is years past the completion date for yet another of her bestselling famly sagas. Her husband, Richard, works for a humanitarian organization dedicated to the health and prosperity of developing countries and wants her help on an extended AIDS assignment in the Dominican Republic. But Alma begs off joining him: the publisher is breathing down her neck. She promises to work hard and follow him a bit later.
The truth is that Alma is seriously sidetracked by a story she has stumbled across. It's the story of a much earlier medical do-gooder, Spaniard Francisco Xavier Balmis, who in 1803 undertook to vaccinate the populations of Spain's American colonies against smallpox. To do this, he required live andquot;cariersandquot; of the vaccine.
Of greater interest to Alma is Isabel Sendales y Gandoacute;mez, director of La Casa de Expandoacute;sitos, who was asked to select twenty-two orphan boys to be the vaccine carriers. She agreedand#8212; with the stipulation that she would accompany the boys on the proposed two-year voyage. Her strength and courage inspire Alma, who finds herself becoming obsessed with the details of Isabel's adventures.
This resplendent novel-within-a-novel spins the disparate tales of two remarkable women, both of whom are swept along by machismo. In depicting their confrontation of the great scourges of their respective eras, Alvarez exposes the conflict between altruism and ambition.
About the Author
Julia Alvarez is the author of five books of fiction, including How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies; a book of essays; five collections of poetry; and five books for children. She lives in Vermont, where she is writer-in-residence at Middlebury College.
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