Entertaining meditation on salvation and loss

Review Novel

April 16, 2006|By BETH KEPHART | BETH KEPHART,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Saving the World

By Julia Alvarez

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / 366 pages / $24.95

Evaluated by the standards of sheer entertainment value, Saving the World, Julia Alvarez's sixth novel, has much to recommend it - a relatively fast pace (especially in the second half), a couple of big action scenes, a through-line of up-to-the-moment ecopolitics, considerable injections of tragedy and sadness, and a reaffirming resolution.

Starring Alma, a 50-year-old Latina writer with more than a passing resemblance to Alvarez, and featuring a novel-within-a-novel, Saving the World tells the story of what happens when Alma's husband travels to the Dominican Republic (Alma's birthplace) on business and Alma stays in bucolic Vermont, her adopted home, to try to answer persistent calls for a next novel and to prove to herself that she can still do some things on her own.

Things go bad at home and far from home, faith is shaken, and sometimes the only salvation Alma can find lies in the character whose story she is writing. Chapters switch faithfully back and forth between Alma's real life and the historical novel she is penning - one story, Alvarez clearly hopes, informing the other.

A pile-up of credibility-straining coincidences allows the plot to proceed. Language is kept supremely simple. No breathtaking poetry lifts you off the page or suggests to you a tangent. Dialogue does its duty. Characters do what the story needs them to do. Explanations are entirely straightforward. Here, for example, is the way that Richard, the husband, explains his temporary assignment in the Dominican Republic, when he is still trying to persuade Alma to join him:

"Okay, here's the deal. If you agree, only if you agree - and I told Emerson I had to run it by you - we can go live in the DR for a while! Wait, wait, don't say anything yet, let me finish. HI just got this really exciting contract to start a green center in the mountains. And Emerson's asked me to supervise the start-up. Five months max on site."

Alma declines the invitation. In the ensuing months alone, she spends time with her elderly, dying neighbor, Helen, and her radical best friend, Tera, who has yet to learn the wonders of cell phones. She learns to do some key things for herself. And she allows her obsession with a historical episode - the story of Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis' quest to deliver smallpox vaccine to the New World via 22 Spanish boys who serve as live carriers - to morph into the only book she now wants to write.

Alma's primary interest with this project lies in re-creating the life of Isabel Sendales y Gomez, the pox-scarred spinster who accompanies the children and Dr. Balmis on the vaccination journey. At night, when things get rough for Alma, it is the thought of Isabel's abiding courage that often keeps her going. Isabel's story, as Alma writes it, is told in an entirely uncomplicated, sometimes even childlike first person.

As I've suggested, things do not turn out well for many of the characters in this book. Idealism has its price. Independence is not a road easily taken. And being a writer, frankly, stinks these days, for we live in a time, as Alma notes, of "dwindling readership, midlist titles spiraling down toward the bottom line, corporate owners for whom books are commodities to be marketed as if they're so many barrels of crude oil or cases of wine."

And yet, perhaps because plot has taken the driver's seat with this book, as opposed to language or deep character development, Saving the World is not a depressing book to read. One still can find, Alma discovers, salvation in one's work. One still can hope, because others have and others will. One still can try to make something of a real life, and despite her losses and the often cruel hand of fate, the possibility of tomorrow still holds its charm.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of five memoirs and a winner of a 2005 Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant.

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