State of Wonder – Book Review

She knew the story of Orpheus, but it wasn’t until the singing began that she realized it was the story of her life. She was Orfeo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice, dead from a snake bite. Marina had been sent to hell to bring him back. – from State of Wonder, page 124 –

Dr. Marina Singh has turned away from her chosen field of obstetrics after a terrible tragedy, and immersed herself in the safe world of research science with a Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company. She carries on a clandestine affair with her boss, Mr. Fox, a man much older than she whose first priority is the financial health of the company. So when the news that Marina’s co-worker, Anders, has apparently perished in the wilds of the Amazon while on a fact-finding mission, the last thing Marina expects is to find herself on a plane to the jungle. Marina is tasked with tracking down the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, a former professor of Marina’s, who is being funded to manufacture a fertility drug. Dr. Swenson has spent years in the Amazon jungle, living with the Lakashi tribe, a group of natives who are exceptionally fertile well past menopause. But, Dr. Swenson answers to no one but herself. Well into her seventies and with a ruthless lack of emotion, Dr. Swenson is incomprehensible and fearless. And Marina is terrified of the woman.

It strikes Marina as odd that all these years later she still remembers Dr. Swenson in the lecture hall. In her mind’s eye she never sees her in surgery or on the floor making rounds, but at a safe, physical distance. – from State of Wonder, page 11 –

State of Wonder begins slowly, but gains momentum as Marina enters the feral world of Dr. Swenson. Plunged into the jungle with its venomous snakes, biting insects, unrelenting heat, and a culture foreign to her, Marina is forced to face her past and re-think her future. She has nightmares of losing her father, and begins to question her relationship with Mr. Fox. She struggles to reconcile the mistakes of her past, and wonders about her own capacity to be a mother.

Ann Patchett’s writing draws the reader fully into the world of the Amazon where morality and ethics have been abandoned by a team of scientists who are determined to make scientific breakthroughs at all costs. Thematically the book takes a look at the divide between cultures, the interference of others in the lives of native populations, and the harm that is often done in the quest for knowledge. Easter, a native boy who Dr. Swenson appears to have adopted, becomes symbolic of innocence lost in the face of “civilizing” native cultures. Easter, the most sympathetic of the characters, is also the most tragic.

Patchett’s novel also asks the question: How old is too old to become a parent? Although on its surface, there is a strong theme centering around motherhood, I was most moved by the examination of the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Fathers in State of Wonder have either abandoned their families (through death or choice) or are simply non-existent. Dr. Swenson’s opinion is that fathers are inconsequential, not to be considered. In this sense, the novel takes a modern look at the role of fathers in the lives of their children.

Patchett writes with authority and a beauty which belies the darkness in State of Wonder. There are lovely passages and breathtaking descriptions. When Marina attends an opera in the city of Manaus, a depressing place full of squalor and heat and sudden downpours, the reader finds herself slipping beneath the skin of the character through the magnificent prose of the author:

Suddenly every insect in Manaus was forgotten. The chicken heads that cluttered the tables in the market place and the starving dogs that waited in the hopes that one might fall were forgotten. The children with fans that waved the flies away from the baskets of fish were forgotten even as she knew she was not supposed to forget the children. She longed to forget them. She managed to forget the smells, the traffic, the sticky pools of blood. The doors sealed them in with the music and sealed the world out and suddenly it was clear that building an opera house was a basic act of human survival. It kept them all from rotting in the unendurable heat. It saved their souls in ways those murdering Christian missionaries could never have envisioned. – from State of Wonder, page 123 –

Despite my overall favorable view of the novel, it is not without its weaknesses. The end of the book felt contrived to me and Marina’s decisions as the novel wound down felt out of character. I wish that Patchett had not wrapped things up so neatly, nor chosen to burden her main character with a cliched choice that demeaned her.  Had it not been for this disappointing finish, I would have rated State of Wonder much higher.

That said, this is a novel that I can recommend if only for its tension, setting, and Patchett’s alluring prose. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and want to be transported to the Amazon, will want to read State of Wonder. This is an excellent book for a book club read because of its multiple themes and moral questions.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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    • Laura on October 18, 2011 at 11:52

    Interesting review, Wendy. Too bad about the ending, but at 4 stars I think I’ll still keep this one on my wish list.

  1. I enjoyed this book but the middle of it dragged for me. I agree with you about the ending – it didn’t work for me, because it felt out of character for Marina and Anders.

    • Kailana on October 18, 2011 at 16:13

    I can’t decide if I am interested in this book or not. On the one hand it sounds good, but on the other hand I am not sure…

    • Wendy on October 18, 2011 at 17:31

    Laura: I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on this one…Had it not been for the end, I would have loved it unconditionally 🙂

    Kathy: I thought the first 1/3rd was slow and then it went faster for me…but that ending…whew, it was really out there.

    Kailana: Wish I could help you decide! Some have loved this one, others have felt as I did, and still more didn’t like it so much. So the opinions are all over the map!

    • Aths on October 18, 2011 at 17:53

    The ending disappointed me too. I wish Marina didn’t take some of those decisions that she did at the end, and that things didn’t just wrap up so quickly.

    • zibilee on October 19, 2011 at 05:25

    I bought this book a few months ago, and have been really excited about reading it. I am considering it as one of my reads for the readathon, and am excited to hear that you really enjoyed it. It sounds like it’s very nuanced and atmospheric, and that is something that I really love. Wonderful review today!

  2. I agree 100% with your review. What awesome writing! It had a great sense of place and culture with real issues for the characters to grapple with. Then…..

    • Wendy on October 19, 2011 at 06:47

    Aths: After I wrote this review I went and read other reviews and I think we are not along re: the ending! Almost everyone mentions it.

    Heather: I will look forward to reading your thoughts on it – it is a good book for the most part!

    Heidi: I wonder about the ending – it seems almost everyone hates it! And yet the rest of the book was so great.

  3. Oh, dear. Well, I have the book and am excited to read it and hopefully won’t mind the conclusion as much as you did. Wonderful review, Wendy!

    • Wendy on October 19, 2011 at 16:05

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on it, Les – I hope you love it, ending and all!!

  4. I’m sorry the ending disappointed you. I certainly can understand why, but I found it so appropriate given the situation. State of Wonder is my favorite read of the year so far, and my book club picked up for next month, so I’m eager to see how many of them feel (it’s safe to say I’m the youngest member by far, which often leads to different perspectives on certain character actions!)

    • Wendy on October 21, 2011 at 16:12

    Carrie: I really wanted to love this one thoroughly and completely – and I mostly did. I think this is a great book for a book club.

    • LindaAnn on November 15, 2011 at 12:28

    I am in the process of listening to this book on CD. I am finding it quite an interesting read and this is our book club choice for November. The characters are fantastically intermingled and while I’m now sceptical of that ending, I think I know where it is going, I’m looking forward to see if I’m right. I love the richness of Patchett’s prose, her descriptions and her insights. I feel the heat, I see the jungle, I feel the energy of the people. The tenseness of the situations are quite vivid when listening, especially with such an excellent reader. If I only had this much of the book (75%) to go by, I’d recommend it, hands down.

    • Wendy on December 4, 2011 at 18:55

    LindaAnn: I will be curious to see what you think of the ending 🙂 I love Pachett’s prose too – it is what kept me reading.

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