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

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 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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


This was the book I read after The Last Town on Earth and I wasn't nearly as impressed with it. It was a story about two women--one from current time and the other centuries before--and it skipped back and forth from one story to the other. One story was about the discovery of smallpox vaccine and it's dissemination to nations around the world using a small group of orphan boys who were vaccinated serialy (is that a word?) as they crossed the ocean. This kept the vaccine fresh so that when they got to a port they could vaccinate the people, recruit more "carriers" and go someplace else. The contemporary story was even less absorbing--something about a scientist and aids and a revolution in a south american country. I just wasn't gripped by it at all and had to struggle through to finish it. I don't know why I bothered--maybe because the other book was so good and I kept thinking I must be missing something here! Anyway, my advice would be definitely read The Last Town, but don't bother with this one!

Yvonne Mendez

This book wasn't an easy read for me, but my Mom gave it to me, so I soldered on until the end because she liked it. What I didn't like: the pace of the book was very leisurely, but the path taken was that of depression and self-absorption to the point of obliviousness to the people surrounding one of the main characters, Alma, who sorta snaps out of it too late. Not sure what the author was going for in the ending since it was bleak, but I guess it's a bleak ending for a bleak story. The plot twists in the Alma story seemed a little too unreal, more like the author was trying to use the story as a soapbox rather than adding credible situations. What I liked: the chicken pox story was very interesting and I found myself very interested in Isabel and the boys. I liked the historical fiction part, near the end of Spain's Colonial era. The author did a very good job describing the effects of depression, since people who haven't been through don't truly understand what the sufferer is going through.While I wasn't thrilled reading this story, it was compelling enough for me to keep on reading it and tell my Mom it was good!


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.


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.


This is a book that has two stories in one. The first one is of Alma living in modern times as a novelist who can no longer continue writing a story she doesn't believe in. Instead she concentrates on the story of Isabel, a rectoress in charge of leading several orphan boys for the small pox vaccine in the Spanish provinces as commissioned by the Spanish king. Both are on a mission as Alma's husband works on setting up a clinic in the Dominican Republic. Isabel is after saving the world through the intricacies of the small pox vaccine. There is a message of faith and hope even through many dark hours.It is an interesting story that left me heart broken. Why do authors think that tragedies are more interesting? It took a lot out of me to read this book and at the end I did like it but I didn't love it. Just like the modern protagonist, I felt a bit ambivalent about what it is I'm supposed to gleam from more modern of the stories.


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 actively decided to stop reading this book, over 3/4 of the way through. Enough was enough. And stopping a book once I've started it is a rare occurrence. I was surprised myself--I loved Alvarez's "In the Time of the Butterflies", but this was nowhere near up to that standard. It was interesting, up to a point--it had to be, to get that far through it. But then, the present-day half of the story just got too ridiculous. I disliked the main character throughout (being what appeared to be a shallowly disguised version of Alvarez herself, what with all the complaints about writer's block and the publishing industry), but her actions during her visit to the Dominican Republic just became unbelievable and outlandish. The 19th century half of the story was certainly the better part of the book, but in the end still not good enough to make me want to keep slogging through the present-day drivel.

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.

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