Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Review: State of Wonder
An advance reader's edition of this novel was provided to me by the publisher through TLC Book Tours
For me, the fortunes of a book rise and fall with character. Character driven fiction is my literary ideal: if richly textured themes, convincing details, and beautiful writing are included, then I'm in book heaven.
State of Wonder kept me suspended in book heaven for two days, after which I mourned. I just wanted to savor the book for a few days, and didn't pick up another book until I'd had some time to process State of Wonder.
Ann Patchett's latest novel might just be as good as the impeccable Bel Canto. Marina Singh is a brilliantly written character (why do I want to compare her to my favorite literary female hero, Dorothea Brooke?). Marina is one reason why I could not put this book down: she is intelligent, cool, insecure, loyal, and strangely innocent. Her journey leads her from icy Minnesota, where she is a pharmeceutical researcher, to the Amazon forest, where she means her former medical school teacher, a woman who inspires a dreadful awe and respect.
Marina is sent to the Amazon by her boss, who is also her lover--the aptly named Mr. Fox. The ostensible reason for Marina's journey is to find out just what happened to her colleague and friend Anders Eckman, who has reportedly died. But Marina's journey into the heart of the jungle becomes a search for so much more. Marina faces her own past, and her reason for giving up a career as an obstetrician for the research lab; her fear of Dr. Annick Swenson, the doctor who was once her teacher and is now working in obsessively Kurtz-like fashion, on pharmeceutical research in the jungle; the powerful and fearsome forces of life and death.
The most vivid writing in State of Wonder is in the portion of the book set in the jungle. Marina spends time in the purgatory of Manaus, trying to locate Dr.Swenson, who doesn't want to be found. The Bovenders, a pair of global wanderers, give color to the Manaus scenes, and there is a gorgeous scene set at the opera in Manaus, where the elusive Dr. Swenson finally appears. Accompanying Dr. Swenson is a child named Easter, who will lead Marina further into the jungle than anyone else. Once Marina leaves Manaus, she and the reader enter into a state of wonder that continues until the end of the book. Marina encounters a village of mothers, wondrous plants and creatures, a gargantuan anaconda, and a tribe of cannibals. The sense of having left the "civilized world" and its morality behind is powerful. Patchett takes the reader on a journey down a river, snaking its way deeper and deeper into the heart of what it means to be human: what is love, what does it mean to give birth, what will we do out of loyalty or friendship? Each time the reader moves deeper into the book, the jungle closes behind her leaving the reader enclosed in a state of wonder. Highly recommended.