Keep the faith: That simple message inspires a novelist when she and her husband are taken hostage.
Depression has been dogging 50-year-old Alma Huebner for some time, though it has not affected her rock-solid marriage to Richard, an environmental-aid executive. Her work has been the casualty. She’s lost interest in the characters of the sequel to her Latino family saga, which sounds a bit like Alvarez’s own How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (1992), just as Alma’s backstory of leaving the Dominican Republic for the U.S. when she was ten echoes that of the author. As an alternative to the sequel, Alma is feeling her way into the psyches of two people on a real-life historical mission: Francisco Balmis, who undertook a court-sanctioned smallpox expedition from Spain to the New World in 1803, and Isabel, head of an orphanage supplying 22 children as carriers of the vaccine. Alvarez alternates between Isabel’s first-person account of the mission and Alma’s life in Vermont, disrupted when Richard leaves for the Dominican Republic to set up a “green center” in the mountains. All this makes for a quiet first half; the action explodes at the midpoint. In Vermont, Alma defends cancer-stricken neighbor Helen from her crazy son and daughter-in-law, self-styled “ethical terrorists.” In the DR, Richard is taken hostage by gun-toting local kids who are convinced that the AIDS clinic attached to his center will spread the disease. (Irrationality thrives in both the First and Third Worlds.) When the Balmis expedition gets off to a shaky start in Puerto Rico, Isabel becomes the heart and soul of the team, smoothing ruffled feathers and protecting her boys—though her mother-hen clucking is overdone. Alma flies down to the DR and, using the courageous Isabel as her “moral compass,” has herself taken hostage too. Both the modern and historical ventures end tragically.
Alvarez’s generosity of vision compensates for the not-altogether-convincing central conceit of her sixth novel.