BOOK: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)

stateDr. Marina Singh is an ex-OBGYN-turned-research-scientist at Vogel, a big-biz pharmaceutical company, sent down to the Amazon after one of her colleagues dies in the jungle.

That guy, Anders Eckman, had been sent into the region a few months prior to try to find another Vogel scientist, also an ex-OBGYN, named Annick Swenson.  Swenson had been embedded with a local tribe for over a decade working to develop a fertility drug for the company, and had recently quit communicating with the bosses back at the mother ship.  Eager to find out the status of her extremely exciting research (the tribe’s women were able to get pregnant well into their 70s, and Swenson thought she could develop a drug that prolonged the fertile years for white ladies as well — a sort of “‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries,” as one character describes it), Vogel sent Eckman to find out what was going on.

Eckman managed to find Swenson, but shortly after arriving in the village, he came down with a mysterious fever and died.  At least, that’s according to the vague and somewhat terse letter Swenson sent Marina after his death.  Though Swenson makes it clear in the letter she doesn’t want anybody else coming by to interfere with her project, Vogel isn’t about to just let her disappear into the trees with their funding, so they put Marina on a plane to Brazil to try again to track her down.

After a long journey, plagued with horrible nightmares caused by her anti-malarial medication, and a lengthy delay in Brazil waiting for Dr. Swenson to come get her and take her to the research camp, Marina finally begins to learn what really happened to Eckman, and the novel’s story launches into an exciting mix of jungle adventure, science, and fascinating details of the culture of various Amazon tribespeople.  Once Marina comes face-to-face with Swenson, whom we learn is her medical mentor back from her residency days as an OB (a mentor who challenged her to the extreme and eventually led to her decision to leave the field after a terrible surgical accident), the characters and their relationships blossom and intensify.  After that, there’s really no setting the book down again until you’re done. (A rare feeling, and a wonderful one, that inability to stop reading until you’ve turned the final page!)

This book is not only extremely engaging, it’s also beautifully written.   I was impressed by Patchett’s talent for description from the very first chapter, when Marina receives the letter about her friend Anders and Patchett writes of her response, “There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.”  That sentence — whoosh — if you can’t feel the sensation it describes by reading it, it’s only because you haven’t experienced real grief yet yourself (you lucky).

The end of the novel features a sudden twist I confess I wasn’t fully on board with, but unlike most stories about white people in places they don’t belong, it thankfully doesn’t end in terrible tragedy (which may be a spoiler, I suppose, but it’s something I would want to know, so I’m giving it to you anyway, and in any case, it’s not completely accurate, it’s just that it’s also not completely inaccurate — you’ll see what I mean when you get there!).

Highly, highly recommend this one to anyone who loves a good adventure tale, especially one that’s as thoughtful as it is entertaining!  This was my first Patchett experience, after reading praise of her work for years — I’m definitely sold and will be checking out more!  Have you read any of her other books?  Any you would particularly recommend?  Tell me which and why!

NOTE:  The comments on this post contain plot spoilers!  You have been warned!

[FICTION]

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7 Responses to “BOOK: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)”

  1. Teresa Vigil Says:

    Check out Bel Canto. I enjoyed it, and I’ll be reading this one now, thanks to your review!

  2. RogerBW Says:

    Picked this one up on your recommendation (oh, the responsibility) and… mostly enjoyed it, I guess. It seemed to spend a lot of time dancing on the edge of greatness, and the Manaus sequences in particular struck me as longer than they needed to be, but the prose was splendid and the plot a fascinating one.

    Though I could have done with a final chapter to wrap up the many, many loose ends.

    (spoilers – see rot13.com if you don’t know how to decode)
    Sbe rknzcyr, vf Znevan va snpg certanag? Jung’f gur fgngr bs ure eryngvbafuvc jvgu Sbk? Vf fur tbvat gb pbcr, be vf fur tbvat gb tb onpx?
    (end spoilers)

    I know that this sort of ending the story with major things unresolved is a popular literary trick, but alas it never sits well with me.

  3. megwood Says:

    Huh. Well, first of all, I’m cool with spoilers in comments, so we can talk freely here. I’ll add a note to the post that says not to read comments if you want to avoid, though!

    But second of all, I didn’t have any of those “unanswered” questions you had, which is kind of interesting to me. I don’t even remember a hint that Marina might be pregnant — I don’t know where you are getting that. Maybe I missed something? But I didn’t have any sense she was interested in getting back together with Fox, either. My take was that her experiences there had changed her life so radically she couldn’t just go back to the way she had lived before. Every belief she had about her job, about Swenson, about research, even about, like, fertility, had been completely turned on its head. I don’t know if she was going to stay and continue the research, or go back home, but I definitely feel like I know she wasn’t going to just go home and go back to the way she was living life before. Her relationship with Fox had changed indelibly as well — there was no salvaging it in the face of her experiences there.

    But also, since when is not having everything totally tidy at the end of a novel (or movie, for that matter) a “trick”? I’d actually argue the opposite is the trick or gimmicky thing — super-tidy endings tend not to reflect reality much, in my experience. It’s different when it’s, like, a mystery novel, where resolution of the “mystery” is a sort of mandatory part of the arc (though even there, one of the things I’ve noticed about, say, British crime dramas on television is that they DON’T always wrap up the mystery at the end — that’s an American thing, and probably the easy way out, if you think about it). Then again, though, I didn’t really feel like this novel ended with a bunch of loose ends. The only “question” I kind of pondered when I was finished was how I wanted to think about what would happen to Easter, and how I felt about what Marina did to him. Aside from that, things seemed fairly concluded to me — at least inasmuch as anything is “concluded” when you’re talking about a chunk of someone’s life and not the entirety of it.

    I was kind of annoyed with the resolution to Anders’s storyline, though — it struck me as a bit on the convenient side, and I wasn’t sure what the point was, other than to quickly wrap up the story (he’s back, her “job” there is done, what to do with Easter is resolved, this section of her life has concluded). But other than that, the unanswered questions you posed didn’t strike me as unanswered. Possibly because you were supposed to answer some of those questions for yourself, based on what you had learned. Spelling it all out and leaving zero room for interpretation or thought is way more a “trick” to me than leaving the door slightly ajar. To mix metaphors! It’s kind of interesting how annoyed you are by that (I’m thinking about The Master here too). And how NOT annoyed I am by it! I wonder what accounts for that?

    • RogerBW Says:

      I think the reason I thought Marina would be pregnant was that her sleeping with Anders seemed out of character – and I was expecting the bark to be pushing her hormones in that direction. Quite possibly just my error.

      As for overall resolution, I think that in a narrative sense if something’s been made a big point of for a while, there’s a need for a payoff. How does the relationship between Marina and Mr Fox go after her return? Maybe you’re right and it doesn’t, but we don’t know. Does Anders manage to adjust to being back in civilisation? Maybe, we don’t know. Does Marina? Maybe, we don’t know. What happens to Easter? We don’t know. In all these cases we can guess, but there isn’t enough information to… aha.

      Part of the difficulty may well be that I approach many stories as an SF and mystery reader: if a puzzle is set up, the expectation is very often that I will try to solve it, and at the end of the book I’ll be told whether my solution was correct. If instead the book ends without that, I feel let down, and this is something I tend to meet in “literary” fiction more than in mainstream (even non-SF and non-mystery). But clearly if one’s coming from a different direction this is less of a concern; I’m willing to write this off as “problem with RogerBW” rather than “problem with the book”.

      And Bel Canto will go on my Kraken (which is the internal name for the Kobo Glo, and I think sounds much more fun).

      • megwood Says:

        Ah, see — I thought her sleeping with Anders was absolutely in character. I totally understood that impulse — I felt it myself. Her relationship with Fox, on the other hand, NEVER felt in character for her. Which I think was the point — she was living the wrong life and didn’t know it until she went out there and stripped herself bare of all her beliefs about things.

        But why do you need to know what happens to all these people later on in their lives, is my question. Why does it all have to be resolved? You needed to know what happened to Marina over the last 40 years of her life? Why?

        I wonder if some of this has to do with being able to relate to the characters too. Like, I related to and understood Marina quite strongly/very clearly. We had a lot of personality and emotional traits in common. Her behavior made perfect sense to me throughout. So, there was no sense of “mystery” to me at the end — I can sense where she is headed and I don’t need it spelled out (and I MUCH preferred them leaving Easter’s fate up in the air — that was one “loose end” that was better left untied). If you couldn’t relate to her — and it almost sounds like you related more to Fox, maybe? — then I can see why you would finish the book with a lot of confusion about what was going on. That might just be a man v. woman thing, or it might be a flaw in the writing that makes Marina inaccessible to anybody who isn’t just like her. I can’t tell which, because I may be one of those “just like her” people, you know what I mean?

        Let me know if you like Bel Canto! (and p.s. Kraken made me crack up!! I love it!)

      • RogerBW Says:

        I think I may be expressing myself badly. I’m not saying I want the next forty years, but… it seems to me that Marina’s story is of someone going to a very alien place, having trouble adapting, finally getting used to it, then going home, and… that’s it. I want to know whether she had trouble fitting in or whether she had become more adaptable and was thus able to fit in better, whether she managed to keep Dr Swenson’s secret as she’d planned or blurted it out as she’d occasionally done with other things earlier in the book… basically I’m looking for some sort of resolution to that arc, because what’s in the book feels as though the final segment has been cut off. In effect the personal plot is incomplete because we don’t see how the new person fits into the old environment; it’s as though the Lord of the Rings just cut off as everyone had been eagle-lifted out of danger.

        Meh. Just me I guess. 🙂

  4. megwood Says:

    Wow, I could not disagree more with that LotR analogy! To me, the storyline here was almost identical to LotR, at least the way I look at it. In LotR, Frodo has this incredible, life-shaking experience and he knows he’s changed forever. And WE know he’s changed forever. And he gets on a boat and set sails for Gray Havens, or whatever that was, and that’s the last we know of him. We have no idea what happens to him once he gets there — right? Or how many babies Samwise Gamgee ends up having with that trollop who isn’t me? Unless I’m forgetting how the books ended (I think the movie did end with a trite “lots of babies” thing, but I can’t remember — if it did, I guarantee I was annoyed by the gimmick — just like I was with the end of the Harry Potter movie, with them grown up at the train station, sending their own kids off to Hogwarts. So unnecessary!)

    But anyway, how is that dramatically different from Marina’s story? She has a life-changing experience, and she heads off at the end of the book in whatever her new direction is as well. And that’s the last we know of her. The book isn’t about how the trip to the jungle changed the rest of her life — it’s only about how it changed HER. The rest we can figure out for ourselves — or find out about in a sequel.

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