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Saving the World (Shannon Ravenel Books (Paperback)) Paperback – April 27, 2007
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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.
Top Customer Reviews
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. Alma is depressed and in trouble with her publisher, who is getting tired of waiting for this saga novel and may want the advance back. You want to shake Alma, but who hasn't used that diversionary tactic of putting too much energy into the wrong thing? She allows herself more tempest-tossed by life than Isabel, a woman who faces real tempest-tossing in a small vessel on a vast and unknowable sea.
How much you like this novel will depend on how well you're able to accept Alma. Just ride these sections and pretty soon, you'll be swept up.
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. Isabel constantly worries about her own future and that of her boys, but her concern is real and realistically portrayed--this is a woman with no options in traditional Spanish society, and she has jumped off a cliff without much of a safety net beneath her. Alma's mid-life crisis, the illness of her friend, and her separation from Richard pale in comparison, and the dramatic ending of Alma's story doesn't help much.
I'd rather Alvarez had focused on Isabel and her remarkable story--the mission was flawed in some ways, but it ultimately meant a lot to many people, while Richard's work in the Dominican Republic is only one more example of well-intentioned first world projects gone awry.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Let me tell you something, right from the beginning, this book succeeded in putting me to sleep faster than...Read more