Julia Alvarez's latest novel links epidemics past and present
A literary critic hounds Alma, the authorial protagonist in Julia Alvarez’s lyric, expansive new novel, Saving the World. When asked about the surly critic, though,Alvarez takes a moment to recall who he is, and then laughs at her subconscious sideswipe.
“If I get one bad review, it’s of course all I focus on,” she says. “So yeah, there’s the critic, Mario Whatever Whatever. There’s the author’s revenge: Give him a forgettable name.”
It’s a rare moment of playful malice from an author whose work is marked by an almost unlimited empathy. Perhaps best known for her 1995 novel, In the Time of the Butterflies—a fictionalized account of three sisters murdered for their role in a 1960 attempt to over-throw the Dominican Republic dictatorship—Alvarez has a keen interest in plumbing the past to dig up new ways of understanding the present. While researching her 2001 novel, In the Name of Salomé, she happened upon a footnote in a historical text: In the 19th century, a Spanish doctor named Francisco Balmis sailed to the New World to eradicate smallpox. What made the expedition so peculiar, however, was his means for transporting the vaccine. Balmis infected 22 orphans with a nonlethal strain of the virus, and shipped off with the orphanage’s rectoress to deliver the vaccine to the masses. It was one of the first attempts to eradicate a worldwide disease, though it posed great danger to the orphans’ health.
“It’s a story that is just so complex and rich, because it gives us a little window into this incredible humanitarian mission, and how often these sorts of events ride on the backs of the little people,”Alvarez says, on the phone from her Vermont home. “It always surprises me how the people who give their bodies or lives for a cause end up being the ones who least stand to benefit from their sacrifice.”
It would have been easy, or at least easier, for Alvarez to simply write a historical novel about the Balmis expedition. It’s a story so flush with implication and historical significance that it’s not difficult to imagine it carrying its own weight. However, Saving opens with Alma, a middle-aged writer stuck in a deep depression, unable to complete an overdue novel and beset with doubts about herself, her husband and her future. Her husband, Richard, a health-care worker, has an opportunity to travel to the DominicanRepublic to work on a team attempting to stop the spread of AIDS on the island, and Alma encourages him to go without her. Left alone, she begins cranking out a novel about Isabel, the rectoress who accompanied Balmis and the boys. Chapters alternate between the muted emotional, third-person narrative of Alma and the baroque first-person voice of Isabel.
“When I hear or read about history, I want to know how I can use it now,” says Alvarez, who grew up in the Dominican Republic. “With all of these little fires floating all over the world, how do I make meaning out of what I do as a storyteller, how do I negotiate this kind of world?”
What Alvarez has done is create a modern parallel in Alma and Richard. Richard, off in the D.R. fighting a modern-day epidemic, is like Balmis and Isabel: a goodperson trying to do a good thing that’s much bigger than him. Both stories are concerned with characters unsure of how their actions will affect future generations, but who plow ahead anyway.
What makes Saving work is Alvarez’s controlled approach to the parallel, allowing the stories to bump against each other now and again, but never connecting too many dots. It’s an impressive bit of writerly acrobatics. Separate the stories too much, and the reader loses interest in the connection. Entwine them and risk condescension.
“I tried to lay these stories side by side, and see what intuitive synergy there was between them,” she says. “I prevent myself from doing something tidy and artful to tie them together. I don’t want it to be flattened out. Sometimes the leaps in connection we make are more metaphoric than logical.”
Alvarez will read Tuesday 11 from Saving the World (Algonquin, $24.95) at Women and Children First. A benefit reception will be held beforehand.