If anything, it seemed to Marina that naivete was the key. It was the thing that had allowed Karen to marry Anders and have those three children, their shared belief that he would always be there to take care of them. She and Anders both were too naive to think that either one of them might die in these early years when they were both so essential to one another and to their sons. Had they thought for a minute that things might turn out the way they did they never would have had the courage to begin.
By now, you might even be tired of seeing this book. I know, I know. I should probably not hype it up, but I do have a lot of things to say about this book, because it sure made me go through a roller coaster of reactions. As usual, Ann Patchett has written a book that won't let me stay silent. Plus, this should have been a WOW book! But for that ......
Dr. Annick Swenson is somewhere in the Amazon, making a very promising drug, related to her research about the Lakashi tribe women, who could conceive even in their seventies. But the company that's sponsoring her research has not been getting any updates from her lately, prompting them to send Dr. Anders Eckman to find her and come back with some information. Instead, a few months later, they get a letter from Dr. Swenson saying that Anders is dead. Now, the CEO of the drug company and Anders' wife both want Marina Singh to go to the Amazon - the CEO wants more information and the wife is convinced that Anders isn't dead. And so begins Marina's incredible journey to Brazil, and later to the jungle, where she finally finds the answers to her questions.
As in Bel Canto, Ann Patchett's prose is just so beautiful and gripping that the whole Amazon comes alive on the pages. The colors, the greenery, the wildlife and the sounds were just very vivid. Moreover, she knows how to write pages and pages when nothing much is happening and still hold our interest. I don't know many writers who have wowed me with that writing aspect. When Marina is in Manaus, waiting to meet Dr. Swenson, she spends her time battling the rain and the heat and humoring the Bovenders. Dr. Swenson is extremely hard to find and she mostly stays in the Amazon. The Bovenders maintain her apartment and handle her business in her absence. When Dr. Swenson eventually comes calling, Marina is all set to go back to the US. Instead, she follows Annick into the jungle.
At the beginning, everything I learned about Annick was through Marina's perspective. Annick was the typical formidable professor - the one you made sure never to cross, the one who can squash your enthusiasm and confidence with one pointed look. Having had to struggle to make a mark in a male-dominated world, Annick never made it easy for the newer generation of men or women. Just when I decided that I cannot hate her more, I began to love her. Her sarcastic humor had me chortling most of the time, and hard as it was, I could understand her - her dedication to her work, her limited patience for those who didn't care about letting her work or who kept hounding her for updates. She was still not infallible - she used her furious gaze to reduce many people to her feet, she was quick to respect the Lakashi and dismiss them in the same breath. But she was still human, and a very well-constructed one at that.
Marina, on the other hand, started out as the pawn in the story. The one who is easily sent off to Brazil, the one who will probably not be missed if she didn't come back alive. She was clever and knew how to play her cards, but she wasn't manipulative and would respect the people she met. But halfway through, she began to blend completely into her circumstances, and that's when I began to not like her so much. It seemed to me then that she was being led by the forces around her to her next step. She appeared to have become as native as possible in mannerisms and attire, and yet something she does in the last fifteen pages felt totally out of character to me.
And those last fifteen pages were what disappointed me. I knew all along that something will happen towards the end. That was the same with Bel Canto. Except in Bel Canto, I loved the ending, but here, I didn't. Suddenly, things were happening, someone appearing, someone else disappearing, someone making a decision that I didn't expect, someone letting go too easily. It just didn't gel together, and it appeared more a botched attempt to bring an otherwise amazing story to an end.
State of Wonder raises a lot of moral and ethical questions. At the foremost was the question of whether we (the more "privileged") are doing a favor when we try to adapt natives to a different way of life. Do we really think that our convenient lifestyle in front of the TV with an always-on connection to the world, a fabulous car, and a safe neighborhood is the only way to live? If we do believe in not changing the natives' lifestyles, then up to what point will we hold back? What would we do if one of them just collapsed with a sprained ankle or a bad cut on the head? Do we intervene and try to save them with modern medicine or do we stay put and tell ourselves that they have managed thus far and would know what to do? I loved the way the question was presented. Even if we assume that we have noble intentions, there is no fine line here. At some point, we will interfere, even if not because we believe we have a better lifestyle.
Yet another related question State of Wonder asks is about consent to science research. Many countries have stringent laws governing this. You do need permission from a person and trouble that person with tons of paperwork before conducting your human experiments. But what about those places where people don't know crap about health laws and attorney fees? What about when they don't know your language and you don't know theirs, so conveniently you ignore each other and play your roles? Dr. Annick Swenson is fiercely protective of the Lakashi tribe and fights off any possibility of an encroachment. I couldn't help but heartily agree with her. But she doesn't hesitate from conducting her experiments on the Lakashi, thereby changing their ages-old lifestyle. The Lakashi knew how to live and survive there. One cannot put them in the middle of NY's roads and expect them to grapple the thrust hitting them from all sides. I loved how well Ann Patchett proved that the Lakashi could look after themselves.
The minimal drama in the book paves the way for the author to clearly etch out her characters. And that she did. I have some very vivid visions of some of the characters, and that's how I know that the author has described the person well. Even in spite of the weak ending, I loved the book. Not as much as Bel Canto and not so much as to toss up five stars, but certainly enough to say that I enjoyed the ride. It took me a while to finish this - my review was actually due 3 days ago, but then Ann Patchett cannot be rushed.