Thursday, June 14, 2012

Literary Bite: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I’m sorry to report that while State of Wonder is a good book, it’s probably my least favorite of Ann Patchett’s novels. Her others – Bel Canto, Run, An Equal Music – are just so awesome that this latest addition to her authorship pales in comparison. But to be fair, like all her books State of Wonder is well-written, creative (subject-wise), and  I did like it.

In State of Wonder, Patchett returned to her Bel Canto roots, creating a situation of a group of strangers shipwrecked in a South American jungle.

The protagonist is Marina Singh, a Minnesotan pharmacist working for a company that is trying to developing a fertility drug in the Brazilian Amazon. Marina travels to the jungle to find Dr. Annick Swenson (the evil(ish) genius heading up this research) and follow up on the death of her friend and co-worker, Anders, who had died on a similar reconnaissance mission a few months before.

The stakes are high in the jungle, both fiscally (if the drug worked it would make major dollars) and physically (upon arrival, Dr. Swenson warns Marina in no uncertain terms that she will not inconvenience herself to save pesky researchers).
 “She found a village of people in the Amazon, a tribe,” Anders had told Marina, “where the women go on bearing children until the end of their lives. . . . Their eggs aren’t aging, do you get that? The rest of the body goes along its path to destruction while the reproductive system stays daisy fresh. This is the end of I.V.F. No more expense, no more shots that don’t end up working, no more donor eggs and surrogates. This is ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting. . . . Pretend for a moment that you are a clinical pharmacologist working for a major drug development firm. Imagine someone offering you the equivalent of ‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries.”
Patchett has a genius for complex character development. Dr. Swenson is a detestable as Marina is likeable, though as the book goes on layers and layers are added to the despot-like doctor’s character, humanizing her and making you care.

I guess my only major criticism is that State of Wonder starts kind of slow…but much like Night Circus, by the time I got to the last hundred or so pages (it’s a 350-page book), I could not put it down. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but there are totally amazing and unexpected twists!!!

I admit to being a very critical critic (only the best!), so if you want a second opinion, the NYT gave it a good review, as did NPR.