State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Friday, July 1, 2011


State Of Wonder
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.

Ann Patchett
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.

I received this book for free for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours.


25 comments:

Marg Bates said...

I wasn't hugely fond of Bel Canto, so wasn't really in a hurry to read this one, but then I heard a podcast featuring Ann Patchett and she was so funny, and so charming so now I feel as though I will need to actually read this book too.

Misha said...

When I love an author, I am always afraid that their next book will disappoint me. I am disappointed to hear about the ending, but also glad that the beautiful and  thought provoking nature of  Ann Patchett's writing remains the same. Thanks for the review!

Helen Murdoch said...

Great review! I usually love Ann Patchett's books (I have Run on my TBR shelf) and this one sounds intriguing. I do hate it when the ending doesn't work for me since that is often the final feeling that one gets for the book.

Nina Happyendings said...

Sad to hear that the ending was a bit dissapointing. I never read a book by this author, but it sounds very interesting. Maybe I can find a copy of her previous book at the library.

Athira / Aths said...

I do hope you give this one a try - some didn't have an issue with the ending, so maybe this will work for you better than Bel Canto. I haven't listened to that podcast - need to check it out.

Athira / Aths said...

I agree - I very rarely read the same author twice, even though I want to. Sometimes, the second book is just as wonderful, sometimes not. I'll be glad if the book is still well-written and thought-provoking, in spite of a few bad story points.

zibilee said...

This is a book that I have been reading about all over the place and want to get the time to read. I am thinking that I may have to make an exception to my book buying ban and grab a copy of this one, though I will be mindful that the ending disappointed you. Thanks for the very perceptive and thoughtful review.

Athira / Aths said...

I agree - Right after I finished this book, I was very disappointed, but one day later, it didn't matter. I realized I loved it more than I found trouble with it. I haven't read Run yet, but that's on my TBR too. What other Ann Patchett books have you read?

Athira / Aths said...

I hope you find one of her books! I will be so excited to hear what you thought!

Athira / Aths said...

Yes! I would love for you to get a copy of this one somehow. I will be eager to hear your thoughts on this! Have you read Bel Canto?

Ti said...

Didn't Patchett write, Run? I really didn't care for that book and I couldn't get into Bel Canto, so I will probably pass on this one. She is very popular with lots of readers though so I know I am in the minority.

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I really REALLY want to pick up this book after reading your review.  I've been meaning to read BEL CANTO for years - must get to that one asap as well - but this one intrigues me even more.  I'm interested to see if I agree with you about the ending!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

Lena said...

Nice review. This books asks some thought provoking questions. I like books that make me think and ponder on real poignant issues.

Lena said...

Nice review. This books asks some thought provoking questions. I like books that make me think and ponder on real poignant issues.

Athira / Aths said...

Yes, she did! I have heard just mixed responses to that one. Mostly, I've noticed that Patchett is a hit or miss author. So far, she has worked for me, but I can see where she fails too in her stories.

Athira / Aths said...

You're welcome! I hope you read this book! I would love to hear your thoughts - both on this and Bel Canto!!

Athira / Aths said...

I agree! I love books that raise questions - especially in a way that makes me rethink my position. I think I am justified in my stand on some issue, and then I realize it's not that simple. So good!

Sheila (Book Journey) said...

It is on my shelf... I need to read this soon!

Athira / Aths said...

Yay! Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

christa @ mental foodie said...

You wrote the review much better than I did. Couldn't agree with you more. "She knows just how to write pages and pages when nothing much is happening and still hold our interest" - yes! And I am one who usually have low tolerance of slow-paced book, but I didn't feel bored reading this one. My review for those who care to read: http://mentalfoodie.blogspot.com/2011/06/book-review-state-of-wonder-novel-by.html

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I love character-driven stories, and I'm drawn to issues such as the ones you describe.  Lots of questions to ponder here....

Athira / Aths said...

Yeah - this was so rich in questions, I enjoyed the thought-provoking phases it put me in.

Athira / Aths said...

I'm not much for slow-paced books either, unless I know about it in advance and can settle myself into the book accordingly. I loved your review too!

Susan B Narayan said...

I just finished State of Wonder, and I have one question:  how did Marina betray her company? 

Athira / Aths said...

Hey Susan! It's been a while since I read this one, so I was trying to refresh my memory. Marina didn't return back soon with information, I guess that's what her betrayal was about. Eventually the company head had to come back.