Monday, March 5, 2012

REVIEW: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett


Years ago, Marina Singh traded the hard decisions and intensity of medical practice for the quieter world of research at a pharmaceutical company, a choice that has haunted her life. Enveloping herself in safety, limiting emotional risk, she shares a quiet intimacy with her widowed older boss, Mr. Fox, and a warm friendship with her colleague Anders Eckman. But Marina's security is shaken when she learns that Anders, sent to the Amazon to check on a field team, is dead-and Mr. Fox wants her to go into the jungle to discover what happened. 

Plagued by trepidation, yet propelled by her sense of duty, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the unknown, down into the Amazonian delta, deep into the dense, insect-infested jungle to find answers from the company's research team. Led by the formidable Dr. Annick Swenson, the scientists are looking into the development of a new drug that could have a profound impact on Western society. But the team has been silent for two years and the daunting Dr. Swenson does not like interlopers inserting themselves in her work, as Marina well knows. The eminent and fiercely uncompromising doctor was once her mentor, the woman she admired, emulated, and feared. To fulfill her mission, Marina must confront the ghosts of her past, as well as unfulfilled dreams and expectations-a journey that will force her to make painful moral choices and take her deep into her own heart of darkness. 

A rich narrative dense with atmosphere and full of deeply realized characters, packed with amazing twists and surprises-encounters with an anaconda, cannibals, death, and birth-State of Wonder is Ann Patchett's most enthralling and confident novel, a tale that will leave readers in their own state of wonder, examining their own values and beliefs. 

Hardcover, 353 pages
Published June 7th 2011 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published 2011)
ISBN 0062049801 (ISBN13: 9780062049803)

About the Author
 from her website

Ann Patchett is the author of five novels: the New York Times bestselling Run; The Patron Saint of Liars, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; Taft, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize; The Magician’s Assistant; and Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Orange Prize, the BookSense Book of the Year, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of two works of nonfiction: the New York Times bestselling Truth & Beauty and What Now? Patchett has written for many publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, Gourmet, the New York Times, Vogue, and the Washington Post. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Check out her website
Fan her on Goodreads
Read her Goodreads interview about the book!

My Thoughts
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.
This story begins in Minnesota, but fairly quickly transitions to Brazil and the heat of the Amazon.
Dr. Anders Eckman is reported dead in the Amazon after being sent there to get a status update from Dr. Swenson, who has been working in the Amazon jungle on a fertility miracle drug. Dr. Eckman's office co-worker Dr. Marina Singh is sent down to the Amazon to find out what she can about his death, and to pick up Dr. Eckman's mission where he left off.

Mr. Fox is Dr. Singh's boss, and the one responsible for sending both Eckman and Singh down to the Amazon. There is something a little off-putting about him. Detached, self-centered, only thinking about the science and with little apparent regard for the safety of the people under him, but yet not a really bad guy.
Dr. Marina Singh is capable, but full of self-doubt. Starting with a mishap during a surgery when she was a resident at John Hopkins under the tutelage of Dr. Annick Swenson, Marina abandoned her promising career in obstetrics and got into the pharmacological field instead. Now she is being sent to the Amazon to confront her old nemesis

Dr. Annick Swenson is all science. Think a female version of Sean Connery's character in the movie Medicine Man. Socially inept, self-centered and tactless, she is one of those people who believes that the ends justify the means and has no problem doing questionable things for the "greater good". 

After learning of her co-worker's death, Marina is convinced by Anders wife to go down to the Amazon to find out what happened to him and where his body is, and her boss Mr. Fox wants her to find out where Dr. Swenson is in her research on a fertility treatment that has 70-year-old women giving birth. 

While in Brazil, Marina meets Milton, a sort of Brazilian "jack-of-all-trades". He is a driver, messenger, and a man who can get things done. Handsome, charming, always ready to rescue Marina in times of trouble, the ladies in my book club all agreed that he was the man of our dreams! 

Attempting to track down  Dr. Swenson, Marina encounters Jackie and Barbara Bovender, who play the "gatekeepers" for Dr. Swenson, blocking all access to her. These two were an odd couple. Bohemian beauties described as looking alike, they had my book club wondering whether they were brother and sister or husband and wife. I don't think that the book ever makes it clear. 

This book was an odd one for me. I didn’t want to put it down, wanting to turn the page and discover what would happen next, and yet I was left feeling a little...melancholy. That’s the best way I can describe it. This was a good story, well-written, but it wasn’t a rip-roaring fun ride. It was emotional and thought-provoking, but a little sad- always a little sad. There were never really any “giddy” moments.

Once the book shifted to the Amazon, it quickly reminded me of the movie Medicine Man, and that familiarity was continually reinforced as I continued to read. The book even mentions the candiru, a fish that will swim up the urethra of river swimmers, which is likewise the subject of a conversation in the movie Medicine Man. 

I had an issue with the sub-plot of the book related to fertility, but they did sort of address my concerns nearer the end of the book. And we agreed in the book club that you really must approach this book as something of a fairytale. There is a lot of "suspension of disbelief" required with this book.

You know, I tried my hand at writing recently, and I discovered how difficult it is. I can do dialogue. I can outline a plot. But I can’t really “write”. There is something that true writers can do that bring realism to a story. It’s the little details. Like when the author mentions Marina answering the phone in the middle of the night, and sitting up in bed, she reaches down to adjust the bottom of her nightgown caught underneath her. Such a minor detail, but it brings such realism to the story. Every woman knows what that is like. We’ve all become tangled in our nightgowns. But would I ever think to include such a personal little tidbit in a piece I was writing? Probably not. I really loved these little bits that drew me closer to the characters and made them my friends-- or myself. And sometimes her lyrical descriptions were just gorgeous...
“The city was breaking her down along with the Lariam, her sense of failure, her nearly mad desire to be home in time to see the lilacs. But then the orchestra struck a note that brought her back to herself.  Every pass of the cellists’ bows across the cellos’ strings scraped away a bit of her confusion, and the woodwinds returned her to strength. While she sat in the dark, Marina started to think that this opera house, and indeed this opera, were meant to save her.” (p. 124)
I liked the book cover. It is reminiscent of a antique map used by discovers, and is very fitting for a book about the Amazon.

My final word: This book is not for someone who insists on an ending all tied up with a neat little bow. It leaves the ending much to your interpretation, and I actually found that I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book much more than the ending. So the first half of the book I loved, and the last half I just liked. But I liked it enough to want to try Ann Patchett again, as this is my first book written by her.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

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