Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Review: Saving the World by Julia Alvarez

Michael Sedano

Last week, Andrea Sáenz, in a sparkling first guest column, talked enthusiastically about the characters who populate two of my favorite Julia Alvarez novels, Yolanda from Yo!, and from my new favorite Julia Alvarez novel, Alma, of Saving the World.

I'm happy to review this novel just one week after Andrea's. There's so much in the novel, I'm sure La Bloga discussion could go on for weeks. Thus, I want to add on to Andrea's observations and but more so, invite comment from gente who've read Saving the World and want to talk about it here.

There's a lot of writerly matter for readers interested in the creative process. The hopelessly unfinished novel, the long since spent cash advance, the historical sidetrack that turns into a novel. Luckily, Alvarez hadn't read the Discover magazine story that ebola-like fevers, not smallpox, decimated America's indigena. The story within the story of Isabel's vaccination expedition into the New World might have seemed less worthy of weaving into Alma's world.

Readers of a certain age need to prepare themselves when they read Saving the World, for one of those rare moments in literature, a moment of recognition. As we meet Alma, she's fighting depression borne of realizing she is passing into a new stage of life. Richard's parents are dead, Alma's mother growing older and helpless, Alma has her two friends, and Richard. She feels as if her writing career has run its course, but beyond this, her life is running out. In a morbid yet exceedingly practical project, Alma systematically goes through the house, writing down operating instructions for all the chores her husband does. If Richard dies before Alma, the widow will at least be able to clear snow off the driveway. Although Alma follows a worst case scenario approach to her world, certain readers will recognize the stunning practicality of the character's worry. If nothing else, those pages will inform some lasting discussions.

There's a delightful "author's message" moment as the novel speeds to its surprising climax. Alma's world has turned completely inside out--a worst case scenario sprung out of nowhere to trap Alma and Richard in a wild third-world amateur show with guns.

This is what it means to live in a fallen world, she thinks. If only she'd been paying closer attention when she read to Helen from Paradise Lost.

That, too, seems laughable here. The idea that literature would have made her live her life any differently than she has. And besides, she doesn't have the luxury right now of being an indvidual. 226

Alma sinks deeply into despair but pulls herself out by remembering the story she's been working on, the smallpox expedition. Isabel whom history has forgotten her surname.

Isabel! The name comes unbidden, the one person who might understand the tangled web of head, hands, heart, and health Alma finds herself caught in right now. Why not Isabel? Who cares if her story took place a long time ago, if it is half made up, if history wants control of the facts? History can keep the facts. But Alma musn't lose faith. Isabel's story is keeping the knowledge of something alive in Alma, belief in a saving grace. 232

There's at least one other allusion to this power of the word. It is wrapped up in the final pages that should be enjoyed for the first time directly by the reader. As should the entire novel. There are so many interesting characters, interpersonal moments, questions, the reader will be reluctant to see Alvarez bring the book to a close. Attention book groups: here's a sure fire title. As popular as Julia Alvarez' work is, I reckon there will be numerous readers for whom Saving the World will be their first Alvarez. Not the last, I reckon.

Here's hoping you've already read and enjoyed Julia Alvarez' Saving the World and you can add your own enjoyment to the screens of La Bloga. All it takes is a click on the "Comment" link.

Until next time, les wachamos,

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