Thursday, July 20, 2006

Guest Review: Julia Alvarez. Saving the World.

By Andrea Sáenz

I have a confession to make: I have an unhealthy obsession with Yolanda Garcia.

Yo isn't even a real person. She's the character that stands in for Dominican-American super-writer Julia Alvarez in her books How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and Yo! At least, it seems that way: Yo is the writer, the one who ends up teaching at a small New England college and marrying a nice, do-gooder white guy. (Alvarez teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont, and is married to a white doctor.) Yo! in particular was a book that I couldn't let go of: each chapter is spoken by one of an army of distinct characters explaining this fragile, fiery talent, Yolanda Garcia. I imagined I'd teach the book during my stint in Teach for America; fate conspired to give me beginning ESL students, so I went to Plan B and gave them small bits of The House on Mango Street, which is hardly a consolation prize. But Yo! remains one of my favorite books of all time, and Miss Garcia one of my favorite characters.

Which is why I approached the first chapter of Alvarez's current book, Saving the World, with more than a little suspicion. Who was this character, Alma Huebner? Another Dominican-American writer with big insecurities married to a do-gooder white guy in New England? How could she recycle my beloved Yolanda Garcia like that? Was this going to be a more depressing, single-voiced Yo!?

And in some ways, the similarities are too close: the husband feels awfully close to Yo's third husband, and Alma's worries and inner musings about her path as a writer aren't as fresh as I would have liked. But Saving the World has something the Garcia books never did: a brand new, sweeping storyline out of Spanish history that bounces off the Alma storyline in wonderful ways, and ends up giving us two good tales for the price of one.

Alma is behind on the novel that's due to her publisher, but is researching a story that attracts her much more: the story of the smallpox vaccination expeditions the Spanish led in the New World, where young boys were used as live carriers to move the vaccine across the ocean and from one town to another. Providing the strength at the center of the journey is Isabel, a smallpox-scarred orphanage director who is loving and shrewd. She's a wonderful, original character, and the entire story-within-the-novel storyline is fully realized and compelling -- for me, even more compelling than the actual Alma storyline. I couldn't wait to get back to it.

Eventually, Alma finds herself in the middle of some difficult situations: the sickness of a friend, and the eventual peril of her husband's humanitarian project in the Dominican Republic. But Isabel, across the centuries, provides Alma with needed direction and support. Alvarez suggests much about the power of story and creativity to strengthen and heal, and the responsibility we all have as "carriers" of powerful stories.

In the end, Saving the World is anything but a Yolanda Garcia retread, and gracias a Dios for that. It showcases Alvarez's trademark lyricism and rich commentary on the space between cultures, but it also shows a striking ability to handle historical fiction, using a topic much farther from her own experience than the revolutionary women in In the Time of the Butterflies. Alvarez doesn't need to write about any more women whose personal profile is the same as her own-- she's got talents that reach across countries and eras.

Andrea Sáenz is a 4th-generation Chicana and Los Angeles native in exile in Boston. She is a Harvard Law School student by day and a fiction writer by night, and has appeared in magazines including Crazyhorse, The Mississippi Review, and the current issue of BorderSenses. She makes great chilaquiles, and blogs at Peanut Butter Burrito.

La Bloga's Bloguera and Blogueros express our appreciation for Andrea Sáenz' first guest review at La Bloga. Wonderful!

Please share your ideas about Andrea's review of Saving the World by leaving a comment.

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Manuel Ramos said...

¡Ajua! Great review - welcome to La Bloga, Andrea, I hope we hear more from you. Between Sol's incredible-sounding dinners and your chilaquiles and peanut butter burritos, we can have quite a feast. Gracias.

Anonymous said...

Thank you blogueros and Manuel. Fun to come play on a blog I've been reading for a while. Now I just need new book suggestions for a future review! :)

Unknown said...

Thank you for the wonderful review of a book I absolutely adored! Welcome to La Bloga comadrita. My suggestion for your next review would be La Perdida by Jessica Abel. I'd love to see what you think of it.