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

P.d.r. Lindsay

This is one of those books composed of several layers, like a torte. In present day America we have Alma, turning fifty, depressed and lost. We have Helen, Alma's elderly neighbour making her last fight against cancer. Back in 1803 in Spain we have Dona Isabel Sendales Y Gomez, the only survivor in her family when the smallpox epidemic occurred, and the rectoress of an orphanage. How are they connected? By the men in their lives, all of whom are trying to save the world. Alma's husband, Richard works for a large organization that helps the Third World. He gets the chance to have hands-on experience with a project in the Dominican Republic, Alma's home country. Part of the project is an AIDS clinic. Dona Isabel is asked to help a doctor, Don Francisco Xavier Balmis, director of the King's Expedition, use her orphan boys to carry the smallpox vaccine to the New World where an epidemic is raging. Helen's son comes home to help her die and sort himself out. The novel focusses on the decisions the three women make. Alma decides to stay at home, find herself and finish researching about Dona Isabel and her smallpox carriers, letting Richard go by himself into a situation where he really does need her. Dona Isabel decides that her smallpox scarred life in Spain will never change and asks to go with her chosen boys to South America. She supports Don Francisco in order to keep the expedition going and save other from smallpox. Helen decides to die at home, without further treatment. The results of these decisions make for a story that explores how personal hurt, pain and anger can be turned into purposeful action, or not, and how saving the world can sometimes mean saving oneself. 'Saving the World' is a written in the present tense and a slow read, but it's worth the effort. It’s a good book for making the reader think.


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.


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.


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.


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 am almost done with this book and have discovered something. There are two female characters and each chapter alternates between the two. The challenge is that one, Alma, seems like a much more lively and realistic character - however, in THESE chapters, Julia Alvarez chooses to make very obvious statements to relate Alma's situation to that of the other character, Isabel. It's a bit like show-and-tell in kindergarten or something. It's just a bit over the top in trying to force teh connection between the two stories. I'd prefer the book to be about only one of the characters with less telling and more showing. But, that being said, it's not horrid. It's just not a "one of my favorites, can't put it down" kind of read.


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!

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.


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 :-)


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.

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.

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...

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.

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