Reviewed by Laura Langer
Author Julia Alvarez sets up two parallel stories in Saving the World. In the 21st century Alma Huebner, a successful novelist, is trying to write a long-promised novel, juggle family and friends, and decide how she really wants to live her life. In the 19th century, Isabel Sendales y Gomez wishes to leave the small world of the orphanage she oversees for the bigger world. Both women receive their chances to find a new life.
Alma Huebner has put off her editor and agent for more than two years, while beginning to research the story of the Balmis Expedition, which set out in 1803 to rid the world of smallpox. It carried Isabel Sendales y Gomez with it as the caretaker of 22 boys who are the live carriers of the coxpox vaccine. In Isabel, Alma finds a heroine, and a haven from the demands of her life. When her husband is offered an assignment in the Dominican Republic, Alma stays behind—ostensibly to make progress on her novel, but she finds it difficult to concentrate on anything outside her dying neighbor Helen, and the story of Isabel.
In alternating chapters, we learn Isabel’s story of her journey from Spain to the New World, with stops in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Mexico, before she travels with the expedition to the Phillipines. Isabel finds the wide world to be exciting, a little dangerous, unpredictable, and surprising. Alma longs for some of the same, while staying in the safety of her Vermont home.
At times Alma’s story stretches itself thin between the mundane and the fantastical, but her character is interesting enough to carry the reader along. Isabel, while dwelling in an inherently more dramatic atmosphere, is a steadier character who slowly carves out a new life in the midst of chaos. With each change in narrative Alvarez leaves the reader longing to know what is happening in that other world—a sure sign that that characters and the story line are strong.
Armchair Interviews says: If you’re looking for a fascinating combination of historically based adventure and a story of modern dilemma, try Saving the World.
Author’s Web site: http://www.JuliaAlvarez.com