This latest novel of Julia Alvarez, as her previous ones, traces her roots in Dominican Republic from the place of her stay in Vermont, USA. The story within this familiar story starts with a real life Spanish story of the early ninteenth century. A noble-hearted doctor Don Francisco conceives of a project to save the world from the scourge of smallpox which started ravaging the world at that time. He takes a group of orphans as live carriers of smallpox vaccination across the seas to the colonies in Africa, Latin America and Phillipines. Dona Isabel, the caretaker of the orphanage, who herself has a scarred face caused by smallpox, accompanies the children, through the rough and tumble of the voyages. The royal philonthrophic expedition of Don Francisco receives mixed response from the local governors and bishops in the new world. Despite the setbacks and challenges, Don francisco manages to vaccinate and save thousands of lives in Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico besides a part of Africa and Phillipines. Isabel's admiration for the vision and mission driven Don turns romantic and her life revives and gets a new meaning. But of course, Don's heart has no space since it is filled only with his mission. He returns to Spain and is recognised by the king for his noble work.
But the story of Isabel and Francisco is what is spinning in the head of the writer Alma in Vermont. Pressed by her literary agent, she stumbles into a writer's block and is unable to transfer the story from her mind to a book. Her husband Richard goes on a thirdworld project in Dominican Republic, gets caught in a hostage situation. Alma rushes to her native land, manages to get into the house where Richard is hostage. But he is killed in the shoot-out, while she is saved, to carry the memory of her last meeting with him.
The Dominican insecurity in an alien American land is portrayed vividly in this as in the other novels. Added to that is the insecurity caused by a dying Helen in the neighbourhood. Watching closely someone die slowly is a traumatic experience. And there is the other insecurity arising from the undefined love to her husband. It is a second marriage. Richard is more like a protector and she is like a dependent needing to be taken care by him. It is not classical romance. But it is a mutually needed, comfortable and reinforcing relationship. It is not the young love flying over the clouds touching the moon. It is a late love making the mutual dependency adding meaning to the lives of the companions.
I see a clear transition and journey from Dominican Republic-centred first novels of Julia Alvarez " In the time of butterflies " and the delightful "Yo". While the native land is the root in this story too, there is more exploration and experience in the undefined alien land of United States with undefined emotions and relations ....