Recently my friend, Kathleen, recommended Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder to me, saying “It’s a little slow in the beginning, but it’s really good!” I had first discovered Patchett when I read Bel Canto years ago and remembered feeling similarly to Kathleen about that one. But State of Wonder was a different type of book than I’ve been reading recently, so I decided to go for it.
State of Wonder traces the story of Marina Singh, a pharmacologist for a major pharmaceutical company which is funding the research and development of a fertility drug by a Dr. Swenson in the Amazon. When Marina and her employer, Mr. Fox, received word from Dr. Swenson that Marina’s colleague, Anders, sent to the Amazon to assess the progress of Dr. Swenson’s work, has died, Marina agrees to travel to Manaus, Brazil, both to track Swenson’s progress and to bring back Anders’ body at his wife’s request. What follows is a much less straightforward journey than Marina could have expected, including a young, deaf indigenous boy named Easter; dangerous trips up and down the Amazon river; a mysterious tree and its symbiotic relationship with mushrooms; a friendly tribe of locals; a decidedly unfriendly tribe of locals; and a reassessment of Marina’s past, present, and future, fueled by working once again with her feared yet respected medical school professor, Dr. Swenson.
The entire book is written from Marina’s point of view, and so we share her excitements, uncertainties, and anxieties as she probes for more information, convinced they don’t have the entire story of Anders’ demise. Patchett does an excellent job of capturing Marina as a full and complex character, and so it is easy to go along with her, both when she is awake and when she is in the grip of a recurring nightmare brought on by her anti-malaria medication. Other characters are equally interesting, though some feel a bit flatter and more archetypal than one might reasonably expect from Patchett: the flighty girl and her surfer husband who keep Swenson’s apartment in Manaus; the quiet, reliable, and stoic guide; the May-December romance between two of the other doctors; the stern but respected doctor-professor who is tough because she expects much of her students, etc. Though some of these characters do feel a bit pat, they all fulfill their roles in Marina’s journey believably.
Patchett’s writing style is quite dreamlike, something I remember from Bel Canto and which accounts for the seemingly slow pace. While I know it took me several weeks to read Bel Canto, State of Wonder actually went more quickly for me, and I was always surprised at how much progress I had made each time I opened the book. The chapters are quite dense, filled with minutiae and inner monologues that don’t so much advance the plot as create more points of connection with the protagonist. For really, State of Wonder is not about Anders’ death, Marina’s physical journey, or the research that may or may not be happening in the Amazon; it is about Marina’s emotional journey coming to terms with her tragic relationship with her father and an unimaginable mistake that has haunted her every decision since medical school. The rest of the plot is just a framing device. A beautiful, surreal, humid, hazy dream of a framing device, but a framing device all the same. Marina is who we as readers need to focus on, and Patchett focuses our attention masterfully. But there is enough plot to keep a reader eagerly engaged and enough science stuff to keep your inner-science nerd happy.
Patchett has a lovely way with painting a gorgeous image with exactly as many words as she needs, contributing to the dreamlike feel of her prose. The only thing in her writing that bugged me, though, really bugged me. Patchett has a tendency to write two complete thoughts that are only connected by a comma (also known as a comma-splice). My guess is that she is trying to create a stream-of-consciousness feel to the dialogue, mimicking human speech. Unfortunately, almost every time she does it, the ideas that she is combining in this way rarely belong together, creating jarring and confusing moments that brings a full stop to one’s reading progress while one tries to figure out what exactly Patchett is getting at. I don’t mean to be snooty about punctuation, but it was enough that it bothered me and affected my reading of the novel as a whole.
As with Bel Canto, the payoff at the end is satisfyingly earned. I’ll say nothing more than that lest I inadvertently include spoilers, but I do have to say that this was one of the more satisfying reads I’ve had in a while. It’s not on my top books list, nor is it one that I will read again and again. However, I appreciated both the creativity and craft of the novel and enjoyed the experience of reading it tremendously, and I finished it having the happy sense of having just finished a really great story. So definitely check it out!
(Fun Fact: Bel Canto, inspired by opera singer Renee Fleming, has been adapted into an opera which will receive its world premier this season at Chicago Lyric Opera.)