Casualties of Salvation

Saving the World

Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2006, 368 pp., $24.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Marie-Elise Wheatwind

A woman I knew in college who was envied for her good looks, keen literary intellect, and sassy sense of humor joined a group of us for drinks one night. She shrugged off questions about her ex-boyfriend and rumored new love interests with the remark, "I'm not dating ever again. I've given up saving the world one man at a time." Her statement sent us into gales of laughter and stories of our own misadventures, and it became a familiar refrain among us, like the chorus of a women's blues song.

I was reminded of that college refrain when I picked up Saving the World, although it was clear from the first few pages it wouldn't inspire the laughter I remember from that distant night out. Julia Alvarez's protagonist, Alma Huebner, “in the fall of her fiftieth year,” occupies a less innocent and far less idealistic world than I did. In the book's opening chapter, Alma, a successful writer whose latest novel is three years overdue, is struggling with "a dark mood". She imagines her best friend, Tera, who is always involved with myriad causes -- antiwar, anti-mines, antisomething -- admonishing her: "Depression is nothing but a first-world dis-ease". But Alma has plenty of reasons to be depressed: she receives e-mails every day informing her of new "sources of horror"; both of her in-laws have recently passed away; and her own parents are becoming frailer with age. She contemplates her mortality and scares herself with death scenarios involving her husband Richard, who often travels to third world countries for his work with a humanitarian agency, Help International (HI). Underlying it all is her nagging sense that, as a Dominican, she has let herself become "an ethnic performing monkey" for her editor, her publicist, and the "book biz".

No longer trusting medical science, in its guise of antidepressants, Alma buries the contents of her many prescription vials -- no doubt hundreds of dollars worth -- at the far end of her ten-acre Vermont property. As she looks out her window at dusk, weeks after this secretive act of liberation, she sees a strange man standing near the grave of her pharmaceuticals. Moments later the phone rings, and an unfamiliar woman's voice asks, "Are you alone?" The woman claims that she is "an old girlfriend" of Alma's husband with "some bad news." She has AIDS, and therefore, she alleges, so might Alma's husband.

Alma's mind races, inventing ways her life will soon be destroyed. The terrible news does nothing to improve her mood: It's as if in her gloominess she has mistakenly wandered into some twilight zone, among the bruised and broken with no way to defend herself from their intrusion or ill will. This woman's curse is an infection she won't be able to shake off. Only Richard -- loving him, being loved by him, if he hasn't already betrayed her -- might save her.

At this point, less than a dozen pages into the novel, I feared Alvarez might be heading toward melodrama, veering into a midlife-crisis-based, angst-ridden romance. I wasn't sure what to think of this Alma, a character who might be a thinly disguised Alvarez, recycling her own life and the "writer's block" she attributes to Alma into a predictable blockbuster. But Alvarez, an accomplished writer in many genres -- fiction, poetry, essays, children's books -- has carefully crafted her latest historical fiction, layering it with conflict and emotion.

Alma's story begins with a lie. She implies to her publisher that she's finished the "family saga" she's supposed to be writing, and that she will hand it in after she gives it a final edit. In fact, she has become entangled in a completely different story. Fleeing to the nineteenth century, Alma has been exploring the parallel universe of a former epidemic: smallpox. Instead of working on the saga, she's been weaving a fantasy about the real but little-known rectoress of an orphanage in La Coruna, Spain, Isabel Sendales y Gomez. A smallpox survivor, Isabel talks herself onto a voyage led by Don Francisco Xavier Balmis, the court surgeon of the King of Spain. Using dozens of innoculated orphan boys as human incubators of smallpox vaccine, Balmis aims to transport them to New Spain (Mexico) and immunize the population there.

Alvarez juxtaposes the different eras in alternating chapters, a narrative strategy familiar from Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, and even Alvarez's previous novel, In the Name of Salome. This kind of structure enables an author to build suspense, as he or she ends one chapter at a "cliffhanger" moment, then picks up a completely different storyline and dilemma in the next. While this structure lends itself easily to plot-driven novels, in Alvarez's hands it also deepens the characters by interconnecting the voices and experiences of Alma and Isabel.

The opening chapters of Saving the World set the stage for the danger and conflict in both women's stories, as well as the altruistic and idealistic reasons why each chooses her potentially tragic path. Each is aware of the hierarchies of control she must navigate to obtain permission to explore new horizons and to protect her independence. Thus, in the historical narrative, when Isabel meets Balmis, she cautions him not to alienate Dona Teresa, the wealthy benefactress who oversees the orphanage, by describing his expedition as a project of the king's, with whom Dona Teresa has political conflicts. Isabel hints, "Did you not say His Holiness blessed the procedure?" Through further manipulations, she gains a place for herself in the expedition, convincing Balmis that the boys will need "a woman's touch."

Alma must loosen the bonds of an equally complicated set of constraints, including her own fears, the demands of those she is beholden to in the publishing industry, and the complicit role she plays as the bilingual, Dominican-born wife of an American whose work involves establishing an AIDS clinic, sponsored in part by a drug company, in the Dominican Republic. While her negotiations within her marriage are clearly borne of love and respectful communication, her unwillingness to interrupt one of Richard's meetings with a phone call hints at the concentric circles of power she is all too aware of: Alma knows that [her husband's employer] Help International represents the good guys, many of them former Peace Corps volunteers, corporate Robin Hoods funneling funds from the rich and powerful in the first world to improve the lives of the poorest of the poor, but their talk at these gatherings, at least as reported by Richard, sounds to her like four-star generals plotting in the back room of the Pentagon. Sometimes Alma wonders how much difference -- besides content -- there is between these types of men.

After Richard reluctantly agrees that Alma can stay in Vermont to "edit" the book she's supposedly finished while he goes on ahead to the Dominican Republic to oversee the clinic project, Alma is free to lose herself in the imaginary world she has created for Isabel. She writes the story in the midst of distractions just beyond her doorstep: her elderly neighbor has terminal cancer and is being cared for by a son who may not have her best interests in mind; Richard and she are not as able to stay in touch as readily as they'd hoped via phone, e-mail, and fax; and Richard's boss, Emerson, tries to persuade her to join Richard in the DR sooner rather than later. He wants her to serve as his company's intermediary with "the locals" in the country where she lived as a child.

Because the words "disease" and infection" are used freely as metaphors in the alternating narratives of Saving the World, it comes as no surprise halfway through the novel when Alma’s and Isabel’s stories begin to merge. Isabel's role expands from nursemaid to nurse, giving inoculations; from chronicler in letters and journals to storyteller, soothing the nerves of boys and men during rough seas and sickness; and finally from witness to diplomat, as she witnesses the ego-clashes of colonial rulers and competing doctors, each determined to claim the glory of "saving the world" from disease. She advocates for her charges, who at one point in their journey are quarantined in the ship's hold, along with young slaves. She observes,
How free had my own boys been to choose their destiny? Whether they were slave girls or orphan boys, our mission's success depended on those who had ever carried the burden of sacrifice -- the poor, the powerless, the helpless, among them the children I myself compromised in order to join the expedition.
Alma, meanwhile, confronts Emerson, asking him who will make sure, "once the third world trials are over, that the poor folks who can't afford it get the [AIDS] vaccine?" She is not reassured by his "refreshingly naive response that he and she will ensure this, and she worries:
Her beloved is now in the hands of this possible messiah or madman, she can't be sure. But one thing she does know (this much history she has absorbed): in any salvation scenario there are bound to be casualties.
Emerson insists they must progress, step by step.First we've got to help [the drug company] find the solution. Alma thinks, "This guy could be Balmis." When Alma learns that her husband is in danger, she drops everything and flies with Emerson to the Dominican Republic. Her actions prove to be every bit as heroic as those of Isabel, because sometimes a story can take over your life.

Ultimately, who but Julia Alvarez could give us this poetically crafted, carefully researched, and empathically imagined work of fiction? Alvarez's migr experience as a "hyphenated American" has influenced her writing: her perspective is as profoundly literary as it is subtly political. Within the macrocosm of terrorism and fear that we live with, "saving the world" may only be possible in microcosmic ways, like Alvarez's rescue of a previously anonymous woman and her orphan boys from obscurity. Her story shows that even as AIDS and the threat of a bird flu pandemic make regular headlines, the political powers that help or hinder cures are nothing new. By imagining a believable, present-day medical scenario alongside her rendering of a historical crisis that had a successful outcome, she leaves us to contemplate our own, unfinished story, which could end in any number of different ways. May the possibilities she imagines fire our determination to save the world from some, or even one, of its many diseases and dis-eases.
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