Friday, October 19, 2012

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.
Content provided by: AFP
Photos credit: Gleison Miranda/FUNAI/Survival
I am going to start by addressing the contents in the final paragraph of the synopses. 
1.  A rich narrative dense with atmosphere and full of deeply realized characters...
Yes, the narrative is rich, making it hard to get into the book.  Rich to the point that Ann might have overwritten some of the characters issues and yes, they have issues.  As for deeply realized I can't attest to that at all.  Yes they are on the paper, yes they read the way she probably intended but could I "realize" them, No, absolutely not.  They seemed so far off of how people would really be and act in certain cituations that half the time it felt comical to me. 
When looking at the narrative in terms of the scenery, Ann nailed it!  I swear I was there.  One of my favorite descriptions is when Marina gets off the plane in Brazil  "...while every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.  She was a snack plate, a buffet line, a woman dressed for springtime in the North." 
 Manaus Brazil
2.... packed with amazing twists and surprises-encounters with an anaconda, cannibals, death, and birth
Yep, those are the best parts of the book, richly narrated, but that's all of them the rest the main character Marina spends going over and over her past.  Not immediate past, her childhood and then her mid 20's.  She is 40 in this book so all I got from her was a self wallowing weakling.  I didn't like her at all and towards the end of the book I lost all respect I ever had for her.  Oh and I'm still looking for the "birth" if the author intends it to be a rebirth of Marina, I didn't think she grew that much through the book. 
Green Anaconda
When I was heading to book club one of the women asked me "Why is the book named State of Wonder."  well, I had been pondering this myself I came up with 2 possibilities, neither of which is very nice so please imagine me saying them in a very humorous manner (because that is how I intend them to be heard)
Tree mushrooms in the Amazon rainforest (Xylobionten )
1.  Because Marina is always "wondering" she wonders about her father, she wonders about her clinical mistakes, she wonders about Anders, she wonders about Mr. Fox, she wonders about Dr. Swenson, the list goes on and on.  I don't think there was a single part of the book where we were shown inside Marina's head that she wasn't wondering about something.  Frequently things we had already read about so it started to feel overwritten. 
2.  Because the entire book leaves the reader in a "State of Wonder."  The ending is one of those nothing resolved type things. 
Symbolism was something that was peppered through this book.  Mostly Ann uses it when naming her characters and you don't realize it unless you read the entire book. 
The entire time I was reading this book I kept thinking of two things, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad,  and Medicine Man. 
I can't say much about the Heart of Darkness because I only made it three pages into that book.  I guess it is the journey up the river (the way Heart of Darkness starts) and how dark I felt the plots in this book were that kept drawing me to compare them.  Regardless I hated Heart of Darkness and to be honest I was not a fan of State of Wonder, it took every bit of willpower for me to finish this book.
Medicine Man is a 1997 Sean Connery movie about the relationship between he amazon and drugs.  Which is a big part of State of Wonder, can't say it's what the book is about because it isn't, the book is about Marina and how she relates to others.  But medicine and the amazon are two big themes also.  On top of that Connery plays a character that reminds me of Dr. Swenson.  The movie isn't his best work but hey its better than this book. 
My overall advice about this one. 
Read Bel Canto instead, it is a fabulous book by Ann


Ricki Jill Treleaven said...

Your review is much better written than mine, and I wish I'd had more time to write it, but such is life.

I certainly liked it bteter than you did, but I totally agree about Bel Canto. I will probably re-read that one in a few weeks because I loved it that much!

I hate science, medicine, bugs, the mere thought of jungles totally creep me out, so the fact that I read the whole thing and didn't put it down is a miracle! I wish I could've liked Marina more in the end, but she disappointed me.

I can't wait to discuss this one with you further! Thanks for linking-up.


Kelly_Deal said...

Beautiful journal!