Julia Alvarez' new novel was a Book Sense pick of the month. I've never been quite satisfied by her earier books, but after dedicating five months to the Spanish-language telenovela "Alborada", I was in the mood for something at least partially set in the same early 19th century time period. I gave "Saving the World" a try.
What a fabulous surprise. "Saving the World" is not without flaws, but it is a marvelous read, completely satisfying and highly recommended.
There's a parallel story structure, one modern, one historical. In this case the historical one is the most compelling. Isabel is the director of a Spanish orphanage, who is approached by Dr. Francisco Balmis, who asks her to help him carry smallpox vaccine to the new world. This will be done by vaccinating one boy, then transferring the live vaccine from one boy to the next until they reach their destination and begin a vaccination program. Moved by Dr. Balmis' drive, Isabel agrees. She also agrees...
After reading the wonderful "In the Time of the Butterflies" I eagerly picked up Alvarez' new novel. Here we have two paralell stories, and Alvarez betrays early on her real interest in the historical. First, we are introduced to Alma, a novelist in a black mood with a bad case of writer's block. Instead of concentrating on her Hispanic family saga, she holds off her publisher and agent and dips into the fascinating story of Isabel, an amazing woman of the early 19th century. Alma has a loving husband, good friends and a successful career, and Alvarez' attempts to portray her "crisis" didn't ring true to me. Alma sends her husband off alone to the Dominican Republic, despite his begging her to go, and then spends hours second-guessing herself, and using the illness of her elderly neighbor Helen as an excuse not to go. Helen's crazy son and daughter-in-law, who style themselves as ethical terrorists, made no sense to me.
On the other hand, the real-life story of Isabel was...
I am an avid reader of Julia Alvarez. I collect first-editions of her novels and poetry collections.
However, I had to force myself to finish this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the story of Isabel but each time one of her chapters would end, I'd suffer through another one about Alma. I'd put down the book for days on end and have to make myself pick it up again.
I'd love to see Alvarez try again and write a story about the Spanish Royal Philanthropic Expedition with nothing else to distract from it.
If you're interested in Julia Alvarez, try "In the Time of Butterflies" or "Garcia Girls" instead. Skip this one.
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