Ann Patchett – State of Wonder
78. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Started: 22 September 2013
Finished: 30 September 2013
Where did it come from? Ordered new from Amazon.
Why do I have it? Book club selection for the month.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 September 2013.
A trip into the
jungle; Marina wonders:
“When can I go home?”
Summary: Dr. Marina Singh works for a pharmaceutical company. Her co-worker, Dr. Anders Eckman, has been tasked to head down to the Amazon to check on the progress of the elusive and eccentric but brilliant Dr. Swenson. When news comes that he has died in Brazil, Marina must go to the Amazon, both to retrieve Anders’s body but also to report on Dr. Swenson, who is at work developing a drug that could extend the reproductive lifespan indefinitely. Marina, who was mentored by Dr. Swenson until an accident drove her away from medicine, is not pleased about the assignment, and as soon as she arrives in Brazil, she wants nothing more than to leave. But first she must find Dr. Swenson, and Dr. Swenson does not make herself an easy woman to find. But Marina must follow her into the jungle in order to learn the state of her research, and there she encounters hardships – and wonders – beyond anything she could possibly have possibly imagined.
Review: This book was beautifully constructed, and beautifully written. Patchett evokes the feeling of the jungle wonderfully, claustrophobic and humid and full of insects and things growing everywhere and resisting any effort to make it easier for humans to live in. (The biologist me hates calling it that, as my professors during the semester I spent in Costa Rica made a big deal about the correct terminology, but “the tropical rainforest” doesn’t quite convey the same strangeness and menace as “the jungle”, and Patchett is clearly going for strangeness and menace.) The various pieces of the book weave together really well, and in interesting and subtle ways. Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver get cross-recommended pretty often, and I can absolutely see why; they have similar beautiful prose styles, and definitely similar senses of place.
But while I enjoyed this book and its story, and admired its writing and its construction, I didn’t quite love it the way I love some of Kingsolver’s work. And I think that boils down primarily to the characters. For a large chunk of the book, I didn’t like hardly any of the characters. Marina, in particular, drove me a little bonkers throughout; she’s so passive, letting herself be lead and directed and swayed and never really sticking up for herself, just letting things happen to her, instead of making them happen, and that kind of character has a very high potential of driving me nuts. Initially, I didn’t care much for Dr. Swenson, either. I am (understandably?) a little sensitive when it comes to the portrayal of scientists in the popular media, and she’s exactly the kind of prickly, questionable ethics, imperious harpy that I don’t want representing my entire field. (I also could not get past her obnoxious behavior that was entirely geared to avoid filing progress reports. Maybe I’m just not yet a brilliant enough scientist that I can get away with that, but: seriously. Everyone has to fill out occasional progress reports. This is not some special burden placed only on you. Get over yourself!) But as the book goes on, and we get to see more and more of her, I actually found myself liking her more, rather than less, as some of those questionable ethical issues are explored. Does that make me weird?
Anyways, this was a very good book, and made for an interesting book club discussion. It didn’t quite capture my heart, but it was certainly an absorbing and worthwhile read. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Recommended for contemporary literature fans, who think that ethical questions like “where do our pharmeceuticals come from and what do we have to do to develop them?” and “how far is too far to go in the name of science and health?” sound interesting should definitely check this one out.
First Line: The news of Anders’ Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 63: “He looked good in his yellow kurta and pressed trousers.” – a long loose garment like a shirt without a collar worn in India
- p. 97: “It was exactly Dr. Swenson’s brio she had been drawn to, the utter assuredness with which she moved through the world, getting things done and being indefatigably right.” – Vigor; vivacity.
- p. 133: “Her eyes shifted constantly from one side of the street to the other in a slow nystagmus.” – A rapid, involuntary, oscillatory motion of the eyeball.
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