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


I am a big Julia Alvarez fan, but this one was a bit harder to read.It's structure is overly didactic: alternating narrators/stories split between two women. One is the author, who must deal with love and loss in Vermont. The other is her character, a fictionalized version of a real woman who helped bring a small pox vaccine to the new world.Both narrative voices are interesting, but neither is really given enough attention. Instead, the overall plan seems to be to draw your attention toward the similarities between the two women (who are very different). But this becomes overly, painfully obvious to the point that it pushes believability.That said, despite a slow start, this novel is very readable. It's interesting and informative, and like all Alvarez novels, it contains kernels of truth and a strong voice on matters of love (particularly) that will always draw me back.

Miguel Torres barrios

I empathised with Alma's relation to her homeland, she is over it, she can't stand it, she is happy with her new country, where, even though she still feels restless, she is content because she at least understands its workings. As for Isabel's story, it is inspiring, It mortifies to think how precarious and limited people's lives in general were back in those times, not to mention dwell on her particular situation of being a woman, and physically scarred. It does give one hope and inspiration to face one's own petty troubles, and it is telling of how much each person can still influence the world through different ways, being a Isabel, a Richard, a Tera, a Francisco, ...a masked man with a gun...


I heard this as an audio book. The story was interesting; I liked the historical story complementing the current day one, but I found it hard to get used to the Castilian dialect. Every Z the narrator pronounced it as TH so it sounded as if she was lisping...glad I took French :-)


Two stories alternately told are separated by time but linked thematically. Excellent story (ies), beautifully written. I thought it "worked" overall and was fascinated by the true story of the Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition which I had never heard of until I read this book. Although some critics have disliked Alma, the contemporary protagonist, I thought Alvarez really captured the self absorption (and attendant consequences of this modern malaise) so rampant today.

Bookmarks Magazine

A warm, if not quite glowing, reception greets Julia Alvarez's fifth novel. Moving away from her accomplished family sagas like In the Time of the Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Alvarez takes up the humanitarian mantle to explore the enduring chasm between the first and third worlds. Critics love her characters, particularly the spirited Isabel, and they respect the novel's ambition, even if some believe she hasn't quite pulled it off. The warmth of her vision provides the necessary suspension to bridge the occasional gaps in this complex but fascinating story.This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.


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.


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.


I found this book frustrating and unsatisfying. While I understand the comparisons the author was trying to make, those comparisons were not strong enough to justify the "ping-ponging" of the reader between the two stories. Alma's story, the best told of the two tales might have interested me if it had been told in isolation. (In fact, either story might have interested me in isolation.) But, all of my investment in the story line was lost when when suddenly jolted into the second plot. Apparently the authors' intent was to assist the reader in linking the women of the two plots, but that linkage seemed forced and contrived. Her principal point also seemed forced and contrived. (Assuming that I am correct in my belief that the principal point is how the nature of activism [for lack of a better word] has changed while the nature of humankind -- and the nature of epidemics has not changed.) It's too bad, she could have made some strong and interesting comparisons between the corporation's handling of the AIDS epidemic and the King's handling of the smallpox epidemic.


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.


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 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.


A new favorite of mine.This beautifully written novel weaves together the stories of two women. One is a present-day novelist (Alma) grappling with writer's block and life changes, while the other women (Isabel) left her life as a nun in an orphanage in the early 1800s to voyage around the world to help eradicate small pox, using her young orphan boys as human vessels to carry the precious vaccine (which was made by infecting the child with cowpox, a disease harmless to humans which imparted immunity to the deadly smallpox). The smallpox vaccination voyage is a true event, and a woman named Isabel did accompany the orphan boys, but no one ever documented much of her story. A very moving, very fast-paced story. I highly recommend it!

Marissa Garcia-sanchez

Two "parallel" stories are being told. I wish the author had chosen just to write the historical novel. The story of how the smallpox vaccine was transported across the ocean was fascinating, especially because of the perspective it was told from. I found Isabel to be a captivating narrator and I couldn't put the book down when reading the chapters told from her perspective. The Alma chapters were dry and neither the narrator nor the story hooked me.I would recommend readers just read the chapters of this book relating to Isabel and the smallpox vaccine. That story, and the narrator's voice telling it, are something I'll never forget.


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.


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.

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