Saving The Best For Later

Lisa Lenard-Cook
3 min read
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How many times have you recommended a book with the caveat that it starts slow? My initial reaction to such a book is impatience (I often don’t bother to finish them) and then, secondarily (when I need to push on), a wish that its editor had been more resolute about insisting where the book really ought to begin.

For its first 100 pages, Julia Alvarez’ new novel,
Saving the World , is far too easy to put aside. Its narrator, bestselling Latina novelist Alma Huebner, whines about her depression, about the fact that she hasn’t written the book for which she’s received a $50,000 advance, and about her husband’s, agent’s and editor’s lack of understanding of these two things. She might have added the reader’s.

But then Alma comes across a story about which she begins to obsess. As Alvarez herself puts it: “The seed of my new novel sprouted in a footnote about an 1803 expedition to save the world with the smallpox vaccine. The vaccine carriers were twenty-two orphan boys, all under the age of nine. I could not stop thinking of those boys. Must civilization always ride on the backs of those least able to defend themselves?”

Alvarez could no more leave this seed alone than a reader can resist a bookstore, and, as she researched the expedition, she discovered that a woman had accompanied the boys on their journeys. Alvarez had found her narrator: Isabel Sendales y Gómez.

Isabel’s sections of the novel, which alternate with Alma’s, are told in a first-person narrative at once more engaging and accessible than the third-person present that hampers Alma’s. And yet, as the novel continues, something happens. No: A lot of somethings happen, and in the process, Alma’s narrative becomes as compelling, if not more so, than Isabel’s.

I would be doing the reader a disservice if I revealed even one of the events that changes everything for Alma—and for the reader—but suffice to say that this is one of the few books in a long time whose last half I read in one sitting. So get through those first 100 pages. Take my word for it: The rest of
Saving the World is worth it.

Book Review

Julia Alvarez presents Saving the World at the El Museo Cultural in Santa Fe on Wednesday, May 3, at 7 p.m. The event is sponsored by Collected Works Bookstore. For more information, call (505) 988-4226.
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