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Editorial Reviews Review

Julia Alvarez is the author of five works of fiction, among them In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, books for children, essays, and poetry. Saving the World is an unfocused attempt to make a statement about the haves and the have-nots and the people who try to improve the lot of those who have never had a real chance in life: those people who try to save the world. Unfortunately, it does not bridge the chasm between authentic high-mindedness and sentimental twaddle.

There are two stories intertwined in the novel: one of Alma, a self-centered depressive author and the other of Isabel, a no-centered Spanish rectoress who, in 1803, with her 23 orphan boys, joins Dr. Balmis on a ship bound for the new world destined to save the world from smallpox. The boys are to be carriers; each of them vaccinated with cowpox and then, when the vesicles fill with fluid, it will be harvested to vaccinate others. This part is, basically, a true story.

Alma has a contract to write a book, gets stuck, and becomes enamored of Isabel's story instead. She starts to write, and her husband, Richard, is called away on a project to the Dominican Republic, Alma's native country, to establish a "green" zone. Another world-saving project in theory, it turns out not to be as advertised. Alma sends him off alone, telling him that she is going to work on the book--some book, anyway--and then wool-gathers about why. Isabel constantly asks herself if she has done the right thing by exposing the boys to the rigors of sea travel, the dangers of ailments other than smallpox, and will she ever have a husband and babies of her own? These two women are portrayed as having remarkably little self-knowledge, despite their concentration on taking their own emotional temperature hourly.

A red-herring sub-plot is that Alma's close neighbor and "good friend," whom she seldom sees until she finds out she's dying, has a crazy son who has a crazy wife. They come to visit as Richard is leaving. Their threats to Alma and to the world at large are described by the two loonies as "ethical terrorism." This nonsense gains Alma's sympathy and she ends up protecting and defending them, spouting poetic aphorisms as reasons. The other loose cannon in the tale is Tera, Alma's one-dimensional firebrand friend who is saving the world from everything you can mention, according to her own lights. She is tedious in her extremism, and especially annoying to Alma when Alma needs attention, which is all the time.

All manner of dreadful things take place in this truly messy book. Alma and Isabel cry a lot, everyone gets to act out and then we go around again. Unfortunately, this story trivializes the world-saving work of the Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition, which was an around-the-world voyage of the smallpox vaccine and really did prevent outbreaks in the New World. Now that is a fascinating story. --Valerie Ryan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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. (Apr. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Shannon Ravenel Books
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: A Shannon Ravenel Book (April 27, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125584
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125582
  • ASIN: B001PO6842
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,711,572 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Julia Alvarez has bridged the Americas many times. Born in New York and raised in the Dominican Republic, she is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist, author of world-renowned books in each of the genres, including How the García Girls Lost their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, and Something to Declare. She lives on a farmstead outside Middlebury, Vermont, with her husband Bill Eichner. Visit Julia's Web site here to find out more about her writing.

Julia and Bill own an organic coffee farm called Alta Gracia in her native country of the Dominican Republic. Their specialty coffee is grown high in the mountains on what was once depleted pastureland. Not only do they grow coffee at Alta Gracia, but they also work to bring social, environmental, spiritual, and political change for the families who work on their farm. They use the traditional methods of shad-grown coffee farming in order to protect the environment, they pay their farmers a fair and living wage, and they have a school on their farm where children and adults learn to read and write. For more information about Alta Gracia, visit their website.

Belkis Ramírez, who created the woodcuts for A Cafecito Story, is one of the most celebrated artists in the Dominican Republic.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on April 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Julia Alvarez' new novel was a Book Sense pick of the month. I've never been quite satisfied by her earier books, but after dedicating five months to the Spanish-language telenovela "Alborada", I was in the mood for something at least partially set in the same early 19th century time period. I gave "Saving the World" a try.

What a fabulous surprise. "Saving the World" is not without flaws, but it is a marvelous read, completely satisfying and highly recommended.

There's a parallel story structure, one modern, one historical. In this case the historical one is the most compelling. Isabel is the director of a Spanish orphanage, who is approached by Dr. Francisco Balmis, who asks her to help him carry smallpox vaccine to the new world. This will be done by vaccinating one boy, then transferring the live vaccine from one boy to the next until they reach their destination and begin a vaccination program. Moved by Dr. Balmis' drive, Isabel agrees. She also agrees because she lost her family in the smallpox epidemic that left her disfigured.

And then you have Alma, who is supposed to be working on a Dominican family saga novel but who instead is spending her time reading about Isabel. Her husband Richard is going to the Dominican Republic to work on an environmental project while she remains at home in Vermont. That's the plan, anyway, but before the novel's end Alma will also cross the waters to try to rescue the mission of a visionary man.

Isabel's fantastic, little-known story is the more gripping. Crammed on tiny ships with rowdy little boys, touchy adult men, and bouts of seasickness, she keeps her eyes on the prize and helps the others focus in that direction as well.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By J. Marren VINE VOICE on June 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover
After reading the wonderful "In the Time of the Butterflies" I eagerly picked up Alvarez' new novel. Here we have two paralell stories, and Alvarez betrays early on her real interest in the historical. First, we are introduced to Alma, a novelist in a black mood with a bad case of writer's block. Instead of concentrating on her Hispanic family saga, she holds off her publisher and agent and dips into the fascinating story of Isabel, an amazing woman of the early 19th century. Alma has a loving husband, good friends and a successful career, and Alvarez' attempts to portray her "crisis" didn't ring true to me. Alma sends her husband off alone to the Dominican Republic, despite his begging her to go, and then spends hours second-guessing herself, and using the illness of her elderly neighbor Helen as an excuse not to go. Helen's crazy son and daughter-in-law, who style themselves as ethical terrorists, made no sense to me.

On the other hand, the real-life story of Isabel was gripping. After barely surviving but losing her entire family to smallpox, Isabel takes the job of running an orphanage. Scarred for life, there is no other option left to her. Then she is approached by Don Francisco with a remarkable proposal--take any boy who has never been exposed to smallpox and begin a journey to the new world. The boys would be vaccinated in sequence, in the hopes of keeping the virus alive during the long journey--at the time there was no way to store and transmit the vaccine other than by live carriers. Isabel's deeply buried spirit grabs the chance to leave her shut-in existence. This part of the book is based on history, and the mission saved thousands of lives.

I couldn't help but find Alma's troubles trivial compared to Isabel's dramatic story.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By AZR on July 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I am an avid reader of Julia Alvarez. I collect first-editions of her novels and poetry collections.

However, I had to force myself to finish this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Isabel but each time one of her chapters would end, I'd suffer through another one about Alma. I'd put down the book for days on end and have to make myself pick it up again.

I'd love to see Alvarez try again and write a story about the Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition with nothing else to distract from it.

If you're interested in Julia Alvarez, try "In the Time of Butterflies" or "Garcia Girls" instead. Skip this one.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I too scooped up this book eagerly pleased Alvarez had a new release.

The stories both captivated me. However only the story of Isabel kept my interest and rang true in a romaticized way. Alma's story, while a page turner (almost like a car wreck so painfully awful to read but you can't help but not turn away), started to a little too overly dramatic and silly. And when her story climaxed I was left thinking "That was it?" Some of the lose ends with Helen, Mickey and Hannah could have been tied up a bit better--or developed more to make the ends that they did have seem more statisfying.

And after reading Alvarez's other books, I was a bit disheartened by what I perceived as a disconnect from the DR.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Myrna Pennisi on July 15, 2006
Format: Hardcover
While I browsed through a bookstore, the subject of this novel caught my attention: the story of a Spanish doctor in the 1800's who sets out on an expedition to bring the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish colonies around the world. Having discovered that the virus from which the vaccine is to be made must be transported live and cultured sequentially, he solicits young boys from an orphanage to be his first line of carriers. The rectoress of the orphanage agrees to let the boys go only if she is permitted to accompany them to care for them. Parallel to this plot is a modern day story of Alma Huebing, a Latina novelist for whom the 200 year old story becomes a source of inspiration. Her husband Richard, not unlike Dr. Francisco Balmis, goes off to work in a health center in the Dominican Republic, dispensing AIDS medication. While the stories are not equally compelling, it's interesting to see the influence that Dona Isabel's life has over Alma's. This is a well-crafted novel that kept my interest in both plot lines alike.
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