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Saving the World (Shannon Ravenel Books) Paperback – Bargain Price, April 27, 2007

3.3 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,097,272 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I felt that I was reading two separate books at the same time. The action was jumping too much from the current life of the protagonist, Alma, and the novel she was writing about the smallpox epidemic 100 years earlier. I have read better books.
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Format: Paperback
If you've read Ahab's Wife and liked it then this if for you. However, if you read Ahab's Wife and thought it unbelievable, pretentious etc... then don't bother reading this book. I admit it; I was hooked to start. Alma a woman approaching or in the throes of menopause struggling to write a book, a married to Richard who works for a do-good corporation that helps unite the down-trodden with the means to provide a sustainable future entertaining. Throw in some kooky friends (Tera - the vigilante, the peace riot organizer) and the good neighbor, Helen, who is dying and it was okay. Then we have the story of Isabel, the historical figure who accompanied the Royal expedition to rid the New World of Small Pox. A noble and highly successful endeavour. Initially Isabel is fine, she is informative, prehaps a bit overdramatic about her loss of faith, her disfigurement etc...but entertaining. Then she becomes like Ahab's wife, the sustainer of the mission, the one who can calm the children, or still the director's violence and his self-importance so the mission is not lost. She deplores slavery and reaches out to the slaves they purchase to insure their mission carries on, she knows how to read, how to write, she is a diplomat behind the fiery director, the mother to the motherless orphans, securing them all homes, falling ill herself so the mission will continue. It all becomes too much to the point that you wish to say enough, enough. I am reminded of a quote from a famous author who said at times he struggles to keep reading when the story is so poor, the character so self-important. And midway through the book this is the case, Isabel is so full of herself and Alma too so wrapped up in her misery (which is of her own creating) that I just wanted it to end so I could say - I finished, it's over.
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