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Saving the World
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Saving the World

2.2 6
by Julia Alvarez

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Latina novelist Alma Huebner is suffering from writer's block and is years past the completion date for yet another of her bestselling family 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


Latina novelist Alma Huebner is suffering from writer's block and is years past the completion date for yet another of her bestselling family 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 "carriers" of the vaccine.

Of greater interest to Alma is Isabel Sendales y Gómez, director of La Casa de Expósitos, who was asked to select twenty-two orphan boys to be the vaccine carriers. She agreed— 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.

Editorial Reviews

"A writer adept at linking momentous past events with current realities,
the perennially popular Alvarez portrays two courageous and giving women, one based on a historical figure, the other a present-day writer not unlike Alvarez herself...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
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"Saving the World." It's a tall order and one that many aspire to in ways large and small. It's also the title and theme of Julia Alvarez's new book, an intriguing and engrossing novel.

Everyone in Alma Huebner's circle - her husband and best friend - is engaged in working to save the world, or at least make it a better place in their spheres of influence. Her best friend is a political activist. Her husband is employed by a conservationist organization.

While those around her are outwardly focused, Alma is turning 50 and looking inward.

A writer, she's constantly nagged by her publisher and agent, who prod her to try to finish, or even start, the promised saga she can't seem to get into.

Instead, Alma has become fascinated researching the 19th-century story of Francisco Xavier Balmis, a Spanish doctor who set out on an adventurous expedition to vaccinate those in the New World against the scourge of smallpox. To do this, he recruits 22 orphan boys to serve as live carriers of the smallpox virus. Their rectoress, Isabel Sendales y Gomez, agrees to go along on the voyage to fulfill her own need for adventure.

Meanwhile, Alma's husband, Richard, has agreed to take an assignment in the Dominican Republic, Alma's homeland, where he will work on establishing an eco-agricultural or green center run in conjunction with an AIDS clinic overseen by a pharmaceutical company.

"It's a chance to save those mountains and communities," he says. "A real chance to make a difference."

Instead of going along, Alma stays in Vermont to work on her book and look in on a dying neighbor.

A novel within a novel, the book tells the stories of two women, two centuries apart, committed to two men with missions designed to help the less fortunate in worlds far away - all of them on the journey of their lives.

It blends the themes of adventure, disease, travel, commitment, loneliness, desire, doubt, love, loss and survival.

The fast-paced stories are compelling and rich in detail. We travel with Isabel as she endures the dangerous ocean voyage and clings to her orphan charges. And we follow Alma through her modern-day life as she deals with the challenge, comfort and mystery that surround her, and her dying friend, although some of that plot gets a little far afield.

Two stories with two totally different endings are melded into a riveting tale by master storyteller Alvarez.

A novelist and poet, she has written other terrific tales, such as "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," "In the Time of the Butterflies" and "Yo!"

In her latest work, the message seems to be that not everyone can embark on a grand mission to save the world. Even those who do face disappointment.

Yet everyone makes their own journey. And sometimes it's all about surviving the dangerous and painful crossings of life and moving on.—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

People Magazine
"This engrossing, expertly paced novel links two women, centuries apart, touched by battles against smallpox and AIDS. It's clear by story's end that the past informs the present and that altruism has its costs."—People
"A gripping story of love, politics, greed and good intentions."—MSNBC.com
Burlington Free Press
"Saving the World is a powerful novel-on a par with such major work as Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997). Politically savvy, astutely written, smart, and rich in poetic imagery, this hybrid of a novel is nothing less than a work of art."—Burlington Free Press
Seattle Times
"Saving the World is an ambitious and unsettling novel, told with estrogenic fervor, a dash of hope and a larger dose of despair."—Seattle Times
Boston Globe
Alvarez "writes with authority in Saving the World. . . . Dedicated research and fine imagination . . . Alvarez [has] skillfully concocted a fascinating life story."—Boston Globe
Dallas Morning News
"Suspense and suppressed romance lend Saving the World the tension of a page-turner."—Dallas Morning News
The Oregonian
"An interesting glimpse of history and a chilling reminder that we are in the midst of contemporary plagues."—The Oregonian
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Provocative . . . shrewd, ambitious."—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
USA Weekend
"Weaving pandemics from different eras is the compelling and timely plotline in Julia Alvarez's newest novel, 'Saving the World.' Two women living two centuries apart confront two incurable diseases — smallpox and AIDS — in the course of the narrative, which explores the interplay of plagues, poverty and politics. An 1803 sailing expedition from Spain to inoculate people in Central and South America against smallpox is based on historical fact."-USA Weekend
Denver Rocky Mountain News
Alvarez's "newest book is an elegant novel in which the two stories - so far apart in years - nevertheless meld smoothly, due to her ability to masterly interweave their similar ethical, cultural and human issues."
-Denver Rocky Mountain News
Florida Sun-Sentinel
"This latest work [Saving the World] reflects Alvarez's creative agility, political insight and spiritual depth, and should add to her already impressive reputation."-Florida Sun-Sentinel
The Washington Post
"Remarkable...Saving the World depicts the need to belong to something deeper and more enduring than ourselves."

The Washington Post Book World

Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Saving the World is wise and spellbinding as it ponders the difficulty of the human condition in any era, and the ways the actions and decisions of a few individuals can make things better or worse.”— Minneapolis Star Tribune
Chicago Sun-Times
"Artfully braids together the stories of two women separated by 200 years. . . .Beautifully written."—Chicago Sun-Times
From the Publisher

"Remarkable...Saving the World depicts the need to belong to something deeper and more enduring than ourselves."
The Washington Post Book World
Diana Gabaldon
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).
— The Washington Post
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 Dona Isabel Sendales y Gomez, 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, Dona 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 Dona 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 2005 Reed Business Information.
Alma is a middle-aged novelist who is three years overdue on her novel, has lost her muse, and is suffering from depression. Her husband, who works for Help International, is headed to Alma's home country of the Dominican Republic to build a green center. Alma declines to go along with Richard, insisting that she has to work on her novel (which unbeknown to Richard, does not exist). While researching her previous novel, Alma stumbled across the story of Francisco Balmis, a Spanish army surgeon who led an expedition immunizing the world from smallpox using orphans as human carriers of the vaccine. Alma is fascinated with the small detail that a woman named Isabel accompanied the orphan boys on the expedition. Knowing that such a thing was uncommon for a woman of the 1800s, Alma decides to write Isabel's story. Meanwhile Alma learns that her husband has been taken hostage as a protest to an AIDS clinic that is testing a new vaccine on the impoverished locals. Alma cannot stop thinking of Isabel and the similarities between both women and the men in their lives determined to save the world. This truly engaging story pulls the reader in from the first page. Alvarez uses the same story-within-a-story narrative that she used in In the Name of Salome (Algonquin, 2000). Chapters alternate between Alma's first-person narration and Isabel's diary entries. Although the book is written for an adult audience, high school students will enjoy learning about Isabel, Balmis, and the smallpox vaccine. The fact that Isabel and Balmis are true historic figures makes this novel even more interesting. It is a highly recommended purchase for public and school libraries serving high school students because it isa perfect book discussion title as well as an enhancement to the social studies or history curriculum. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2006, Algonquin, 368p.; Further Reading., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Sarah Cofer
Library Journal
A successful Latina novelist, 50-year-old Alma lives in rural Vermont with husband Richard, a manager for development projects in Third World countries. Alma is deeply, passionately in love with Richard, but she is also suffering from writer's block and severe depression; she simply can't get started on the Latino family saga she promised her agent and editor. Instead, she becomes obsessed with another story-that of Don Francisco Balmis, who from 1803 to 1810 traveled throughout the New World with orphan boys as live carriers to inoculate the citizens of New Spain against smallpox, and Do a Isabel, who accompanied him to watch over the boys. Both are actual historical figures, but little is known about Do a Isabel, and it is she around whom Alma weaves a novel. When Richard travels to her native Dominican Republic and is taken hostage at a green center he'd established there, Alma looks to her creation, Dona Isabel, for courage. Alvarez's (In the Time of the Butterflies) descriptions of nature and character are both naturalistic and poetic, creating a psychological novel-within-a-novel that is intense and riveting. For all libraries.-Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Keep the faith: That simple message inspires a novelist when she and her husband are taken hostage. Depression has been dogging 50-year-old Alma Huebner for some time, though it has not affected her rock-solid marriage to Richard, an environmental-aid executive. Her work has been the casualty. She's lost interest in the characters of the sequel to her Latino family saga, which sounds a bit like Alvarez's own How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992), just as Alma's backstory of leaving the Dominican Republic for the U.S. when she was ten echoes that of the author. As an alternative to the sequel, Alma is feeling her way into the psyches of two people on a real-life historical mission: Francisco Balmis, who undertook a court-sanctioned smallpox expedition from Spain to the New World in 1803, and Isabel, head of an orphanage supplying 22 children as carriers of the vaccine. Alvarez alternates between Isabel's first-person account of the mission and Alma's life in Vermont, disrupted when Richard leaves for the Dominican Republic to set up a "green center" in the mountains. All this makes for a quiet first half; the action explodes at the midpoint. In Vermont, Alma defends cancer-stricken neighbor Helen from her crazy son and daughter-in-law, self-styled "ethical terrorists." In the DR, Richard is taken hostage by gun-toting local kids who are convinced that the AIDS clinic attached to his center will spread the disease. (Irrationality thrives in both the First and Third Worlds.) When the Balmis expedition gets off to a shaky start in Puerto Rico, Isabel becomes the heart and soul of the team, smoothing ruffled feathers and protecting her boys-though her mother-hen clucking is overdone.Alma flies down to the DR and, using the courageous Isabel as her "moral compass," has herself taken hostage too. Both the modern and historical ventures end tragically. Alvarez's generosity of vision compensates for the not-altogether-convincing central conceit of her sixth novel.

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.19(h) x 1.13(d)

Meet the Author

Julia Alvarez left the Dominican Republic for the United States in 1960 at the age of ten. A novelist, poet, and essayist, she is the author of nineteen books, including How the García Girls Lost Their Accents,In the Time of the Butterflies—a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read Selection—Yo!, Something to Declare, In the Name of Salome, Saving theWorld, A Wedding in Haiti, and The Woman I Kept to Myself. Her work has garnered wide recognition, including the 2013 National Medal of Arts, a Latina Leader Award in Literature in 2007 from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, the 2002 Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, the 2000 Woman of the Year by Latina magazine, and inclusion in the New York Public Library’s 1996 program “The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters, from John Donne to Julia Alvarez.” A writer-in-residence at Middlebury College, Alvarez and her husband, Bill Eichner, established Alta Gracia, an organic coffee farm–literacy arts center, in her homeland, the Dominican Republic.

Brief Biography

Middlebury, Vermont
Date of Birth:
March 27, 1950
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A., Middlebury College, 1971; M.F.A., Syracuse University, 1975

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Saving the World 2.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Sonfollower More than 1 year ago
I had to force myself to finish this one. I generally enjoy a story within a story, particulary with a storyline based in historical fact, but not this time. I would have preferred a better, single story. I found the current-day protagonist unlikable, selfish and undeserved of her relationships. I never developed any real attachment to any of the characters.
mandi1082 More than 1 year ago
I usually enjoy books by Julia Alvarez but this was not one of them. This is two stories in one and i wish that she would of just stuck to the story about Isabel which was a little bit more interesting not buy much then the first story. I had a hard time getting through the book and once I did start to enjoy it a little I was almost done with the book.
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