Saving the World

ISBN: 1565125584
ISBN 13: 9781565125582
By: Julia Álvarez

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About this book

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.

Reader's Thoughts


Honestly, this book probably deserves more stars. It is beautifully written, and, unlike some of the other reviewers, I liked the back and forth between the two stories/time periods. The themes of the present day events are illuminated by the events in Isabel's story; Alma's story would certainly lose something if readers were not able to read the novel she is working on.But I don't plan on re-reading it, and I can't think of friends to whom I'd recommend it off-hand.It was ultimately much more sad than I'd expected, either from the cover copy or from the beginning of the novel itself. In fact, the tragedies of the latter half of the novel seemed to undermine the hopefulness so much a part of the beginning.


This belongs that hit or miss category of novel that attempts to connect a contemporary story rooted in the modern woes of a writer/journalist with the subject of her historical research. The novel becomes the story of two women from vastly different circumstances and eras whose stories begin to merge. The great risk in writing a novel with distinct story lines is that one will be far more compelling than the other. Such is the case with Saving the World. The story involving an expedition of twenty-two orphans boys and their guardian, Isabel Sendales y Gomez, on 19th century quest to rid of the world of small pox, is a fascinating one. Isabel is a complex and courageous woman and the circumstances surrounding her make for a compelling plot line. By contrast, the story of Alma Huebner, a novelist pulled into Isabel's story amidst mid-life crisis and writer's block, is far less riveting. Where things really go awry, as they do so often in these narrative duets, is when the author attempts to, either through plot or theme, intersect the lives of the lead protagonists. What was believable becomes silly coincidence. Plot twists feel forced into shape, leaving the reader to divest themselves of any connection they might have once felt for the modern characters. Alvarez is a skilled writer who I think attempted to do too much with this story. She didn't seem to trust in the original inspiration for the story (a footnote on the Royal Smallpox Expedition that had been turned away from the Dominican Republic) to carry the novel. Not every novelist can take on historical fiction in a compelling way. Alvarez is more than up to the task.


A novel within a novel, with one story being way more compelling than the other. Alvarez makes Alma a sort of mirror of herself: a writer who wrote a story about Latin American women, which makes it onto school reading lists, who decides that she wants to write about something more. She becomes obsessed with the story of Isabel, an orphanage keeper, who travels with her orphans a Spanish doctor to the New World to help prevent the spread of smallpox. Alma's story, which involves her husband going to the Dominican Republic for some weird work project that I can never get my head around and getting embroiled in local violence, alternates with Isabel's story. However, Alma's story is really the msot compelling, and Isabel's story goes on way too long, if only to provide alternate chapters.I have to admit that I only picked up this book because I thought I was actually picking up one of Isabel Allende's books (I know, I know). It was entertaining and a relatively easy read.


AWFUL. I can't believe I even picked this book back up after I motored through HP7. What a waste of time. Extremely redundant, which actually hurt my writerly soul.Previously I had said:I've only just begun this book, so it's hard to say how good it will end up being. The novel follows Alma, a 49-year-old woman attempting to pull herself out of a depressive funk who is attempting to write another novel. However she keeps finding herself sidetracked with a the novel's side research--a sea voyage in which a rectoress and 22 orphan boys are being used as carriers for the first smallpox vaccination. (Those of you who know me well are likely not surprised; I do enjoy a good disease book.)The chapters alternate between Alma's story, as her husband travels to the DR and she stays home to finish the novel (and thus far also to wallow in self pity) and the story of the ship's crew as they travel on their mission of mercy. This is very tough literary tact for a writer to utilize successfully, this hopping back and forth, and I haven't yet decided whether it's working for me. Thus far, the smallpox side of the story is the more compelling half.


Ambivalent about this book. It intercuts a Dominican writer married to a Vermonter working for an international aid organization with scenes from the story she is developing, based on an actual historical event, the use of Spanish orphan boys to transport smallpox vaccine across the ocean to the Americas in the early 1800's. The modern-day part of the novel is a hot mess, but the fictionalized historical story is quite interesting.

Ted L.

An excellent novel by an excellent writer. This novel blends a historical novel about a multi year journey from Spain to the new world, the Philippines, and China carrying smallpox vaccine and one of the first major international efforts to vaccinate native people against the small pox virus which was spread by the post Colombian trade and immigrant migration with a real time novel about an author struggling to finish a novel amidst the chaos of her own life.Julia Alvarez is a writer of Dominican decent who weaves tales of the Dominican Republic, stories of Dominican people into her novels. This is a very well written novel that is enjoyable to read.

Mrs. Reed

This one was my least favorite Alvarez, but it was still worth reading. I felt like the historical portions were unfocused, and the parts set in the present were predictable and a little dull. I think that perhaps the common link between the past and present (men driven to altruistic acts to the point of deserting their families and putting themselves in danger) was almost too obvious, but then also underdeveloped. I'm only being this critical because I know Alvarez is capable of a more fully imagined world and rounder characters. Also, it seemed like most of the characters annoyed her.I liked a lot of the ideas it brought up, mostly the luxury of being a nation of antidepressants when most of the world is lacking the most basic medical care. The themes of sickness and healing were handled much more deftly than the overt connection I mentioned before.


I thought a lot of things about this book and I am not sure how to rate it star-wise. There are parts of the book that are beautifully and creatively written and I couldn't put the book down. Yet there are also parts that were tedious and not as interesting and I put the book down often.The main character is Alma, a writer living in Vermont with her husband Richard. At age 49, almost 50, she seems to be having a bit of a mid-life crisis while she is unable to finish a novel she is writing that is under contract with her publisher. This is what I thought the book was going to be about, but it wasn't. With various twists and turns in the plot, it is really about the "have's and have not's" in developed and undeveloped countries. While I generally care very much about this, I was very surprised when the book took this turn and I didn't really feel prepared for it at all. Unfortunately, Alma can also be a bit whiny and trying at times which made me not want to rate the book as highly as other sections of the book did.The contrasting story in the novel is about Isabel, a woman who traveled to Centrual and South America and beyond in 1803 on an expedition that attempted to innoculate the people for smallpox. It turns out that this is historical-that people figured out that if humans were exposed to the bovine version of smallpox, it would innoculate them from the human version and it could literally have saved thousands of lives. This is the part of the novel that rings the truest and I love Julia Alvarez's attention to the detail of Isabel's life, especially on board the ship as the only woman.I would still recommend this book in spite of some of it's flaws. It really does force the reader to question why we act as if some people's lives really are expendable in our quest for knowledge and opportunity.


It took me the first hundred or so pages to get into the two stories within this one. But once I did I was "infected with questions" about what it means to save the world, to love and to let go. By the end I loved this book as much as Alvarez's others.


I loved In the Time of the Butterflies, so when my brand-new library card and I came upon a Julia Alvarez book I'd never heard of, we decided to give it a try.Well...In the Time of the Butterflies this book ain't. There's very little action, and it switches back and forth between its two stories without really doing a good enough job of unifying the two. We start out reading the story of Alma, a modern-day Dominican woman living in Vermont, trying and failing to finish the novel she's been promising to her publisher for years. Her publisher wants a saga novel about a Dominican family, but Alma keeps getting distracted by the story of the Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition to carry smallpox vaccine to the New World in the 1800s. It seems a nun named Isabel had come along to supervise the young boys who served as a living chain of vaccine carriers, and while Isabel is barely a footnote in the books Alma has read, she's fascinated by this lone woman traveling in a world of men. The book then shifts to Isabel's story, and we learn about how she was able to talk her way onto the ship to accompany the boys from her orphanage so that they are not left without a nurturing, mothering influence as they head off into the great unknown. It really feels like Alvarez wants us to relate more to Alma's story; it's the present-day one and Alma is clearly a stand-in for Alvarez herself and it's never even completely clear from the book whether we're truly reading Isabel's thoughts or whether the Isabel chapters are actually the novel Alma eventually sets out to write about her. Nevertheless, Alma's chapters are generally slow and tedious - she's just too selfish, self-centered, and boring with her writer's block and her marital dissatisfaction and her overall desire for everyone to leave her alone. Isabel's story is where most of the action lies, yet it's written in a way that keeps the reader at arm's length the whole time. And when Alma's story does begin seeing some action, it's too little too late, and I just don't have the sympathy for her that I need to have to feel compelled by the things that happen to her.For all I'm being hard on this book in this review, though, it's not as bad as I'm making it out to be. Isabel's story in particular was fascinating to read - I think I just would have rather had a story about her than this alternating-narrator business I got instead.


Alma knows she's fully reached mid-life crisis when she begins questioning the relevancy of her life. Sure, she's a beloved wife and published author, but something feels missing. Her book's deadline has passed, and she still has no book to show for it. While she loves her husband, she receives a disturbing call from an anonymous woman, stating that the woman had slept with Alma's husband and transmitted AIDS to him. In the midst of all of this, Alma begins learning about a woman, Isabel, who volunteered to travel from Spain to the Americas to bring the Smallpox vaccine to those who needed it. Isabel, along with the 22 orphan boys from the orphanage where she's devoted her life, embark on a 2 year voyage to save the world from Smallpox. As Alma learns of Isabel, her own husband, Richard, leaves for the Dominican Republic to embark on a similar voyage where, once in the DR, he will work in an AIDS clinic. As Alma's life intersects with Isabel's, she learns how great a cost "saving the world" brings with it.I did enjoy this book, but for the first 150 pages or so, nothing much happened. Isabel's story remained pretty static--shipbound days with antsy orphans. Alma's life didn't differ much either--stress of not writing a book and worrying about her neighbors health. Towards the end of the book, lots of real action starting taking place, but it almost seemed out of place after such a long and drawn out beginning. I found both Alma and Isabel slightly boring--they weren't very complex people and didn't experience much in the way of change by the story's end. I thought this book could have been great, and I was certainly interested in the subject. However, it was an "almost" book to me. It was almost life-changing. Almost interesting. Almost important. But it never quite reached the point of being any of those things. While I liked it, it was something of a disappointment.


I found myself having to push through this story, but at the same very interested in and connected to the characters. I loved the Balmis expedition story and was fascinated to learn that this expedition actually occurred. I didn't quite understand the connection between the two stories and simply read it as two separate pieces. I know Alma found inspiration in Isabel, but she seemed so different from Isabel's character that I couldn't connect the two. Overall, I enjoyed the story and looked forward to following the characters daily in short periods of time.


In Saving the World, we have two parallel stories, each taking place centuries apart. In the first, novelist Alma Huebner struggles to replicate the success of her first novel. During the course of research, she comes across a true story in which the heroine will become a model for her own journey. In this second story, Isabel Sendales y Gomez, sets sail from Spain with 22 orphan boys, on a dangerous and daring expedition to vaccinate the settlers in the New World against smallpox.In short, I enjoyed the second, actual historical story, more than the first. The attempts to entwine the two stories seemed a bit forced to me and I struggled to maintain interest at times. Maybe it’s just the historical fiction lover in me, but I would have liked this book a lot better if Alvarez had focused on the Royal Expedition and fleshed out the characters and story a bit more.


A historical fiction novel that tells the story of Don Francisco Balmis, the courageous Spainaid who embarked on a two year voyage across the world to rid the world of smallpox. He left Spain with 22 orphan boys who were live-carriers of the disease in order to vaccinate people in an attempt to rid the future populations of this deadly disease. Along with him,Isabel,an orphanage director accompanies and acts as a caregiver and 'mother' to these boys. Along the way, they were met with hostility and skepticism and the travelers grew weary with illness and indifference. Alongside this tale, we hear about Alma, a modern day Hispanic novelist who is intrigued by this story of Balmis and Isabel. Her husband,Richard, a do-gooder and an employee of HI (Help International) goes to the Dominican Republic in an effort to set up a clinic that will research the AIDS epidemic and help the poverty striken population. Richard, is taken hostage by a radical, yet youthful and inexperienced group and global-relations, diplomacy and peacefulness are shattered. Isabel finds she is drawing strength from the tale of Isabel and draws reserve from the calm that Isabel's gift as a story-teller brings to soothe the orphan boys' fears. The two stories are told in tandem and the reader is equally immersed in both tales as they attempt to meld together.


A story within a story book. An author struggling to complete her promised book, while dealing with a friend's battle with cancer, and her husband working far away, starts researching the story of a a woman who traveled with orphan boys acting as smallpox vaccine carriers from Spain across the Atlantic to New Spain. Every other chapter flip flops between Alma, in the present, and Isabella in the past. I enjoyed the idea of the smallpox vaccine carriers, but something was missing. And all the back and forth was distracting. I was not as interesting in the present day story. I think the potential for the book was greater than the outcome. Which was pretty much how I felt about the other book I read by the same author.

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