Thursday, 2 February 2012

Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Book:  State of Wonder by Anne Patchett, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, 353 pages.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Ann Patchett has dazzled readers with her award-winning books, including "The Magician's Assistant" and the "New York Times" bestselling "Bel Canto." Now she raises the bar with "State of Wonder," a provocative and ambitious novel set deep in the Amazon jungle.

Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist with a Minnesota pharmaceutical company, is sent to Brazil to track down her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who seems to have all but disappeared in the Amazon while working on what is destined to be an extremely valuable new drug, the development of which has already cost the company a fortune. Nothing about Marina's assignment is easy: not only does no one know where Dr. Swenson is, but the last person who was sent to find her, Marina's research partner Anders Eckman, died before he could complete his mission. Plagued by trepidation, Marina embarks on an odyssey into the insect-infested jungle in hopes of finding her former mentor as well as answers to several troubling questions about her friend's death, the state of her company's future, and her own past.

Once found, Dr. Swenson, now in her seventies, is as ruthless and uncompromising as she ever was back in the days of Grand Rounds at Johns Hopkins. With a combination of science and subterfuge, she dominates her research team and the natives she is studying with the force of an imperial ruler. But while she is as threatening as anything the jungle has to offer, the greatest sacrifices to be made are the ones Dr. Swenson asks of herself, and will ultimately ask of Marina, who finds she may still be unable to live up to her teacher's expectations.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, and a neighboring tribe of cannibals, "State of Wonder" is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss. It is a tale that leads the reader into the very heart of darkness, and then shows us what lies on the other side.

My Thoughts:
I found this to be a funny book to read and now to review.  Ultimately, there is some beautiful writing - rich language, thoughtful prose, amazing description and interesting character development.  Having said that, the book did not really grab me. 

I found that Marina, the main character, though intricately presented, did nothing for me.  The book largely took place in her head and thoughts.  Unfortunately, it was the same for many of the characters.  There was an air of gloom over the whole book which contrasted starkly with the title.

I did like some of the philosophical queries that came about in the book, for example, how far science should go just because it can, the ethics of going into the jungle and disrupting the lives of the natives, and even how to do research in such circumstances.  These explorations were taken to the extreme and were often horrifying or uncomfortable.

So, while it would be difficult to fault Patchett's writing, this was just not the book for me.  I know others have raved about it and, though I can see the book's merits, it wasn't the book for me.

1 comment:

  1. State of Wonder begins in the snowy north, the prairies of Minnesota are where Dr. Marina Singh (age 42) has grown up and lived most of her life. She has a successful research career pharmacology, although her original aspirations were towards obstetrics. She has a quiet relationship with her boss, and good friends at work. Until one of them disappears on a visit to a research site in the Amazon. Mr. Fox (Marina's boss), asks her to go there to "investiagte" the death of her associate, Dr. Anders and to check up on the ongoing research project being run by Dr. Swenson, an aging Svengali of the pharmaceutical research world.

    How to even begin to describe this book? Just read it. The imaginings of Ms. Patchett are quite impressive, and you will be as sucked into this one as I was! I just could not put it down! The ending?: let's just say it was cathartic. tears were streaming down my face. Maybe I'm a sucker but this one just clicked for me. There was a point where I saw the foreshadowing meant for the characters (and the reader, I suppose) that I sometimes miss and get called on at my book group for missing!) But in this case, it was just so perfect!


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